PURE Theatre Company
Running through Aug. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
PURE Theatre, 701 East Bay St.
723-4444 or puretheatre.org
Oklahoma native and Steppenwolf Theatre resident actor Tracy Letts’ 1993 play Killer Joe — his first — has been hailed for its raw mix of humor, drama, and violence; it’s been praised as a drastic exhibit of American life in its dark corners. Killer Joe stares bravely, voyeuristically, at what happens when people who have nowhere to go and nothing to lose are backed into a corner. We’re as transfixed by the characters’ actions as they are by their console TV. Except for a late-act bit of directorial whitewashing, PURE Theatre’s summer slam production is a powerful, exceptional presentation of a unique play.
The setup: Chris Smith (Ryan Mitchell) owes serious money to a local drug dealer. When he can’t pay up and his life is in danger, he enlists his dad, Ansel (David Roach), in a plan to bump off his mom — Ansel’s despised and despicable ex-wife — for her life insurance policy. Ansel’s current wife Sharla (Tara Denton) is a manipulator who wants in on the payout. Enter “Killer” Joe Cooper (David Mandel), a Dallas police detective and part-time hitman. When the Smiths can’t pay Joe’s up-front fee, Joe takes Chris’ 20-year-old virginal sister Dottie (Courtney Fenwick) as a retainer until he can get his compensation from the policy payout. Each scene of Killer Joe takes place inside the Smith family’s Texas trailer home, creating a growing sense of confinement and suffocation as an unsettling undercurrent of impending dire consequences flows as steadily as the family drains their cans of beer.
Killer Joe showcases some of PURE Theatre’s finest ensemble work, with each cast member delivering honest, compelling performances. Mitchell’s Chris is tightly wound and flustered, crushed by the weight of both his debt and the knowledge of how he’s bartered his sister. As Dottie, Fenwick delicately emanates what Joe sees in her: an innocence (to a fault) that died long ago in other people. Denton revels in Sharla’s trashy glory without overplaying her, and exercises some serious dramatic chops, too. Roach plays the creepy, gruff, and abusive Ansel with a grumbling dourness but still manages to lend him some humor. As the title character, Mandel maintains a consistent tone of menace without overt villainy, keeping us guessing.
These are people whose actions involve infidelity, abuse, drug use, and murder. Their surroundings come complete with the ubiquitous barking dog outside and buckets of KFC. It’s a specific world that neither playwright nor company exploit or parody but instead mine for drama and even humor.
When, naturally, the scheming, double-crossing, and complications finally come to a head, the results are explosive — or, at least, they should be. Inexplicably, director R.W. Smith and company pull up short here. Rather than deliver the raw brutality of the play’s climax — a particularly discomfiting scene of violence and sexual abasement — the lights dim and the stage lights begin slowly strobing, taking us completely out of the dramatic reality of the moment and watering down its impact. This may make the scene more palatable for a local audiences, but it sabotages the climax and prevents the overall production from really packing a punch. It instead makes this play more a comfortable discomfort.
It’s not the only alteration that’s been to make the play less jarring. A pair of brief nude or semi-nude scenes have been fig-leafed over, presumably for the same reasons. It was likely a tough call for director Smith and PURE, who make much of the company’s mission to produce the newest and most edgy dramatic material being written today.
The question is relevant, though: does toning down the violence and eliminating nudity obliterate the very stuff that makes this play what it is? One could argue that without its full, graphic seediness, the play is shorn of its intended impact and meaning. On the other hand, one might argue that the nudity and violence are marginal, merely physical manifestations of what lies at the heart of the characters and the story — and if the company focuses on those deeper aspects of the play, then the surface material can afford to fall away a bit.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is whether the audience notices if something’s missing or feels “off.” And in this case, something feels distinctly off. Whether it’s a line of dialogue that strikes as not sitting right in its context, or an entire scene that feels bizarre, there are noticeable clues that the play has been specially handled for its audience at PURE Theatre.
Still, these changes aren’t enough to sour the production as a whole. The ensemble cast works together terrifically, and Smith’s direction keeps things tightly coiled at a disturbing level of uneasiness.
“Do you trust me?” Joe asks Dottie. It’s an almost humorous question, coming from the hitman who has accepted Dottie as a down-payment and who’s about to kill her mother. We never trust him. But at times we almost like him. We like all of them at some point. As dastardly as this family is, as foul as the things they do and say to each other are, they all have moments of vulnerability, humor, and sadness. Maybe we can’t put ourselves in their shoes exactly, but at heart the Smiths suffer from the same greed, desperation, loneliness, and hatred that can fill any person’s heart. Killer Joe is a strong offering from PURE and a good lead-in to their upcoming season.