Trash: Killer Joe's a Dark Tour of the American Trailer Park

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Fathers & Sons - CHASE YARWOOD-GUSTAFSON
  • Chase Yarwood-Gustafson
  • Fathers & Sons
It's tempting to open this review with a doting paragraph about Santo & Johnny's bittersweet and otherworldly slide guitar instrumental "Sleepwalk," which would be a fine addition to New Moon's Killer Joe soundtrack. Or maybe I could drop some words about the overly dramatic theme music associated with Quinn Martin-produced detective shows that seem to be an original inspiration forTracy Letts' violent black comedy about love and death out in the great wide lonely. But director James Kevin Cochran has assembled a fine show with a first rate ensemble, so I'll focus on things audiences can expect instead of mourning details lost in translation.

Bouncing boobs, bobbing peckers, and even the odd butthole all make featured appearances in Killer Joe. Letts' breakthrough play is pure pulp — a Texas trailer park noir about life behind the aluminum curtain, in a land of narrowing opportunity where thrills are cheap and life is cheaper. More disaster than tragedy, Letts smudges the boundary between what's seen through the trailer's one useful window — the glowing TV — and what's unfolding in the filth-stained world of the play. Everything plays out like an update of Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths, dragging bourgeois audiences through Flyover country where (to borrow from the band Pulp), "they  dance and drink and screw, because there's nothing else to do."

See, Chris Smith's mom stole his coke, right ?It was a lot. He was going to sell it and, you know, responsibly get his life back in order, only for real this time not like that time he tried to start a bunny farm but neglected the rabbits and they got rabies somehow and tore each other apart like some kind of sick drive in monster movie come to life.  Metaphor alert. Now Chris (played with impressive restraint by Luke Conner) owes 6G to some really bad dudes and Ansel Smith, Chris'  no-account daddy (Nicely rendered by Daniel Pound) — says he can't help. It's not like Ansel and his his sex-addicted wife (who's not Chris' mom) ever had more than $1000 at any one time.  So these two broke, broken, and helpless manchildren get high as hell underneath the Confederate flag in a convincingly squalid trailer, watch some shit TV and concoct a plan to murder Chris' mama for not very much insurance money

Enter Killer Joe, a polite, organized, thoroughly corrupt police detective wearing a black hat. He'll do the job for $25,000, non-negotiable, nothing else to say.

Joe's a classic Western trope: The bad, possibly evil SOB who becomes accidentally almost heroic now and then because he lives by a personal code that sometimes puts him on the right side of things though he remains, in every case,  a bad, possibly evil SOB. He's a direct man who means what he says, and says only what needs to be said.  He's also Letts' answer to Tennessee Williams' famous Gentleman Caller and when the Smiths can't make their downpayment Joe says he'll take a retainer — Chris' virgin sister Dottie, an infantilized adult with Munchausen by proxy written all over her pretty face. What follows is sick romance, rape, and horror interrupted and occasionally enhanced by buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The drama climaxes too literally with a scene of humiliation, abuse, and shaming so graphic and severe it threatens to make the play every bit as horrible as the dark world it aims to illuminate.

Killer Joe is a grotesque, trigger-laden, exploitive and genuinely poetic fable of limited horizons playing out in the vast flatness of Texas. It's a Libertarian paradise where radical self-interest neutralizes the blessings of liberty like chemtrails neutralize, I dunno — something or other. It's a liminal place where characters dream small and fail epically.

Speaking of epic...

Annie Freres, notable for performances in Mama Mia and Rock of Ages at Playhouse on the Square, proves that her acting chops are just as finely developed as her "Jesus Christ" pipes. As Sharla Smith she's often naked, and so emotionally honest in the play's closing scenes the most stoic observers may find themselves watching through laced fingers. Mersadies Burch is similarly compelling Dottie, the childlike somnambulist at the heart of Letts' nightmare.

But what about the killer?

There's color missing from Don McCarrens' one (admittedly perfect) note performance as Joe, but he somehow manages to get the job done just fine in black and white. Whether he's laying out the terms of his agreement, or force-feeding a villain no worse than him (save for lack of a bullshit code) McCarrens is never anything short of credible.

The  cast's good, okay? But Chris Sterling's scenic design is the star. Texas has never been more claustrophobic or patinaed with grime. His is a very real cross section of trailer life. You can literally smell the green shag carpet. You can almost smell the poverty. Still, something's missing.

TV and radio broadcasts intrude throughout Killer Joe creating a secret sixth character in the drama — possibly the real bad guy in this western. It's helpful to highlight what the Texas lottery means to folks already gambling on meth and multilevel marketing schemes. It' might be fun to hint at why a plan that sounds like the plot of a Quinn Martin potboiler just seems like the way ordinary people do in Everytrailer USA. Strange as it sounds, the one thing desperately needed in a show already overstuffed with texture, is maybe a little more texture.

The adult content warnings aren't bullshit. Dirty words and basic nudity are only the tip of an icky, disturbing, weirdly riveting iceberg.


Brothers & Sisters - CHASE YARWOOD-GUSTAFSON
  • Chase Yarwood-Gustafson
  • Brothers & Sisters



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