RWCMD’s production of Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play August: Osage County, opens with deafening sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning. They paralyse the audience into a shock reminiscent of that experienced in the wake of recent political revelations such as Brexit and the United States presidential election result.
We may well echo the question posed in the programme by director Debbie Hannan, “how have we gotten here?” and it is Hannan’s intention to transport us back to “the root of things”. It can be argued, however, that the early nineties are not the source proper of today’s issues; rather Letts’ first play darkly documents, through the painfully inevitable, part self-inflicted bleakness of the Smith family, one of the countless, repeated and repeatable steps along the way to today’s political situation.
Set in traverse, the audience can peer straight through the shabby trailer, occupied by 38 year old buffoonish Pa Ansel, a father since 15, portrayed by Charlie Cassen; the sexually available stepmoma Sharla, played by a physically striking Tenaya Berndsen and other-worldly Dottie. She is the twelve-year-old in a twenty-year-old’s body, damaged by her mother’s attempt to rid herself of “the part of her that was cut out and grown into a better thing than she had been, had ever been” mesmerizingly played by Georgina Sadler. We can stare past the drama and look at others we can assume are comfortingly just like us, divorced and separated from the messy, disastrous car-crash lives of those between us, justly smug that we would and never could, be like them.
Letts’ play is described as a dark comedy; its freakishly comical characters make short-sighted, reactionary decisions to the back drop of monster truck racing and up-beat country tunes. Many audience members giggle throughout. Whether this is down to their discomfort at plot and characterization or to their familiarity with the physical comedy of a fellow student, is difficult to decipher. Yet there is nothing remotely funny about these characters.
Owing money to local heavies, a jittery, anxiety ridden Chris, son to Ansel, protective brother to Dottie, played by an energetic Chris Smith, enters in scene one and quickly convinces his father, and us, that their money worries can be solved by the timely cashing in of the absent mother’s insurance policy. Fifty thousand dollars is up for grabs and they already know how they will spend half of it: in employing the dark, powerful, Killer Joe, law enforcer and law-breaker, portrayed by a grounded, assured Patrick Elue, to execute the irritating matriarch.
After countless incidents of police brutality that have appeared on our screens over the last few years, it is of no surprise that we do not raise an eyebrow at the idea of a corrupt cop, happy to take major payoffs for the disposal of unpalatable individuals. Neither do we shirk from the immorality of murder. This woman, absent from her daughter’s life, steals and sells her own son’s drugs to fix her broken car; she surely deserves to die!
The plan once set in motion, cannot be derailed. Joe ensures that his hold upon the family is both practical and emotional. He demands a retainer until his fee is paid, laying claim to the tender, vulnerable heart of the family: Dottie. It is a sticky, turbulent, dangerous situation, yet through it all, Dottie seems unscathed. Her violent, near-death, early years experience has served to protect her from the harsh realities of impoverished trailer-park life. She sees and hears the truth, clearly, unconcernedly, even when sleep walking or when out of earshot. She only fights back when something makes her angry and for almost the length of the play, nothing does.
Hannan declares that she has treated the violent assaults in the piece as a creative and empowering process for the female actors to explore. I am not sure that this was entirely achieved and I question whether in attempting to do so, the company shies away from the very real, ugly truth of male –perpetrated sexual violence against women.
Other fight work is energetic, sometimes wide of its mark but ultimately committed and creative. The drumstick scene is treated, as the script demands, with overt sexuality and would be more disturbing if played out without those overtones. The dining scene, by the restrictions of theatre in the traverse, isn’t quite as tense as a screen version might be, simply because we are as an audience, on the very outside of the action, but the cast plays barely held-together civility well and the final moments of the play show Killer Joe meeting his match in a rather surprising way.
One of the most enduring images of the play is delivered by Chris, describing his attempt to achieve the perfect life as a dope smoking proprietor of a rabbit farm. After three weeks away, making love to an irresistible girl, Chris returns to find his hard work destroyed by a ferret that has penetrated the fence causing the rabbits to rip each other apart. It is an easy metaphor for the Smith family, intent on self-destruction, when the source of all their woes is in plain sight. Just as the rabbits turn on each other rather than escaping to freedom through the hole by which the ferret entered, so too do the Smiths make choices that ultimately threaten to destroy them.
Hannan has succeeded in bringing to the stage, a dark, chaotic element of society that we rarely see in theatre, even today. Where Loach addresses difficult issues on-screen, exposing the destructive but necessary choices made by people who have no choice, this play similarly reminds us that, however distasteful, however absurd, these lives happen, even when we are looking in the other direction. They are painful and somewhat inevitable, full of self-created woes and bad decisions that could be so simply remedied, don’t we think, by better attitudes and cleverer choices? Yet ”everybody does their best. Anybody who says he don’t is lying”
There is clever lighting by Mollie Tuttle, a superb set, designed by Sonya Plenefisch, complete with a sofa stuffed under with empty beer cans and fast food wrappers, overhung by a proudly displayed star spangled banner, and a cast that, although lacking the hefty dose of cynicism that comes with age, give impassioned performances. You would do well to get yourselves down to the RWCMD and see the rotten kernel parked up within, but be forewarned, as Killer Joe himself declares “domestic disturbances calls are the ones you’re most likely to get hurt”
Killer Joe runs until Saturday 10th December.
Warning:Contains nudity, violence,strong language and adult themes