Killing Chickens
PURE Theatre Co.
Nov 16-18, 24, 25, 30, Dec 1, 2 at 7.30 p.m.
Nov 19, 26 at 2 p.m.
PURE Theatre at the Cigar Factory
701 East Bay St.

It’s rare to see a PURE show where the characters aren’t completely screwed up. They’re all poster people for the proposed benefits of therapy, wading waist-deep in anguish or trying to get over a traumatic event. In these fascinating productions, contented relationships are as rare as big musical numbers and the set designers take pride in their humdrum arenas.

Killing Chickens, written by PURE cofounder Rodney Lee Rogers, is based in a world where Food Lion, Chick-fil-A, and late-night TV coexist with guns, cancer, and chemo. In this environment (“a small town in South Carolina”), there shouldn’t be much room for fantasy, but there is — along with compelling drama, subtle character development, and plenty of humor.

Rogers gives himself the funniest lines as Cliff. Without hogging the limelight, he swaggers around, flipping his cellphone like a gunslinger from High Noon. Scenes from the Gary Cooper classic are projected onto the set before Chickens, and there are various nods to Hollywood conventions throughout the show.

Cliff needs therapy. The death of his mom has hit him hard. His dad, Poppa Bob, seems to be one drumstick short of a bucket. As Cliff struggles to wrest power from Poppa while maintaining his façade as the devil-may-care member of his family, the strain is beginning to show. Rogers effortlessly brings all of these elements to the fore, making the audience laugh, and care about what’s happening, more than any other actor on the stage.

Cliff’s wife, Heather (Rogers’ real-world wife and the other half of PURE, Sharon Graci), is also in need of some lengthy bouts of counseling. She’s separated from her husband, has a kid to raise and a mortgage to cover. Like Cliff, she’s stuck in her gender-oriented role: She’s the practical one, the caring peacemaker and talker. Rogers is a smart enough writer to acknowledge this while including some authentic dips into her psyche; unhappily, she blames herself for Cliff’s shortcomings.

The action livens up when Cliff and Heather’s young daughter Ashley is on stage. In an energetic yet dialogue-heavy scene, Sullivan Graci-Hamilton delights the audience and overcomes the ambiguities of her character. Like her mother Sharon Graci, Sullivan is able to focus a lot of energy into a small amount of stage time, and she’s all the more memorable for it.

Poppa Bob has the most prominent part in Chickens, and he’s way beyond therapy — in fact, he’s prime stock for the funny farm. Most of the time, though, he comes across as a guy past his prime, missing his lost loved ones, going through the motions at his poultry processing job. In the tough role of Bob, Randy Neale gives a performance that’s almost painful in its intimacy. Thanks to some peculiar blocking by Chicago-based director Brian Golden, some of Neale’s choicest moments are unseen or barely heard when he turns his back on the audience or delivers lines upstage, giving a sense that we’re merely flies on the wall bugging a family conference. While such acting’s more appropriate for movie close-ups, Neale still creates several satisfying instants throughout the play and reacts to plot developments in a realistic fashion.

Some of Neale’s best scenes are with Ryan Ahlert, who plays Cliff’s hypochondriac brother Phil. Like their dad, Phil doesn’t hold much with talking about his feelings, although, ironically, he spends a lot of time on the couch. Ahlert takes a while to flesh out his strange relationship with his family; early on, his performance seems uneven, switching from loneliness to boredom to fuck-you grins without giving the audience a chance to get to know him first.

With plenty to say about loneliness, bereavement, the societal roles people play, and the pressures that result, Rogers has created a worthwhile piece of theatre that embraces its dramatic clichés rather than ignoring them, holding its own against past PURE offerings by Neil LaBute, Martin McDonagh and others. Rogers’ characters may need psychiatric help, but that makes their hard lives and poor choices compulsive to follow — the hallmark of any great drama.

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