EDIT: 4/10/10: This review is from the production at the Profiles Theatre space. The show has been such a commercial success, Profiles has moved it to Royal George’s Studio Theatre for an extended run.
There are signs as you enter Profile Theatre’s intimate, creaky space warning you of the violence, gunshots and nudity on display in Tracy Letts’ 1991 play, Killer Joe. But, really, nothing quite prepares you for what goes down in the home of this trashy Texas family, when Chris (the emotionally raw Kevin Bigley) and his blubbering father (Howie Johnson) hire a brooding hit man, “Killer” Joe Cooper (Darrell W. Cox), to murder his mother for her life insurance policy — money desperately needed to get Chris out of big time trouble with small time drug dealers.
Naturally, the plan becomes unraveled before its even begun, as the cash to pay Killer Joe isn’t available quite yet (but it will be after the deed is finished). However, Killer Joe doesn’t do business on spec, and demands a retainer fee — in the form of Chris’ younger sister, Dottie, played by the perfectly understated Claire Wellin. As the desperation runs blood thick, they reluctantly pimp off Dottie, but doing so slowly eats away at Chris’ conscious and eventually brings him and his family to their knees.
Director and Steppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder doesn’t compromise the realism of this taut, nearly farcical thriller with phony theatrics. The cigarettes the actors nervously puff fill the space with real smoke, the coffee they brew sputters away in the kitchen, the tv they attempt to distract themselves with actually works. And the nudity and violence, as noted, are explicit. Bold, necessary choices that keep you completely engaged and equally repulsed.
In fact, the only production I can think of in recent memory that staged such authentic violence only inches from my feet was Redtwist’s The Pillowman. (Read my review here — and it’s still playing, so see it!)
Kudos to a cast who can deliver on these extreme demands without going too far; Snyder has assembled a well-oiled ensemble that isn’t afraid to get dirty. And as the title character, Cox uses his piercing eyes and imposing figure to make damn sure you know: this isn’t going to turn out good.
Highly recommended, though not for the easily offended.
“Killer Joe” plays through July 18 at the Royal George Theatre. For more information, visit profilestheatre.org.