Monday, April 9, 2012

KILLER JOE • St. Louis Actors' Studio

This first play from Tracy Letts takes a look at the Smiths -- a brood that gives the phrase "trailer trash" a whole new meaning.  Killer Joe is the third play I've seen from Letts and so far, they all have this flavor of damage mixed with dark comedy.  Like sour candy or bitter chocolate…  …  You know what I'm sayin'.  At any rate, under Milton Zoth's direction, it's a hearty blend going on right now at Actors' Studio.

The swastika tattooed son of the Smith family, Chris (James E. Slover), is in debt to some tough guys for thousands of bucks he doesn't have.  His wounded, naive little sister Dottie (Rachel Fenton) walks and talks in her sleep, and his dad Ansel (Larry Dell), whom Chris shares joints and Stag beer with, doesn't care about much outside of old detective shows on television.  In addition, they all look like they kinda don't shower very often.  Sharla (Missy Miller) is Ansel's new but maybe not so improved wife.  When her stepson asks why she answered the door half-naked, she replies, "Well, it's the middle of the night!  I didn't know who you were!".  Yep.  A nice bunch.

Jason Cannon (Killer Joe Cooper), Rachel Fenton (Dottie Smith),
Larry Dell (Ansel Smith), Missy Miller (Sharla Smith)
and James E. Slover (Chris Smith).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Chris decides that an end to the squalor of this family could be gained by one act -- killing his dad's ex-wife, his and Dottie's mother Adele, and splitting the insurance money.  Now, according to Dottie's accounts, Adele really is a miserable bitch, but still.  Chris hires Killer Joe Cooper, a Dallas police officer who "exterminates" on the side, to off the matriarch of the family.  Chris plans to pay Joe from a portion of the insurance policy proceeds, a policy where Dottie is the beneficiary.  But with no money for even the down payment, Killer Joe insists on a retainer.  "Retainer" -- a word among a catalogue of words and phrases that Chris and his dad don't understand.  They really are so stupid, it's hilarious.  Anyway, giving too much away would spoil the fun of this foul thrill ride, but let's just say that the Smiths have got to be one of the most fucked up families in Texas.

Make no mistake, in spite of, or because of its premise, this play is intensely funny -- it's basically a comedy, although it's a dark one.  It contains serious language, nudity, and naughty things involving a KFC drumstick, so I would leave the kids at home.

Jason Cannon (Killer Joe Cooper)
and Rachel Fenton (Dottie Smith).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The whole cast was very impressive.  James E. Slover's Chris Smith and Larry Dell as his dad Ansel don't seem to have half a brain between them.  While their braying back-and-forth is very funny, it was just a little tentative when I saw it, but these guys inhabited their characters well and I have no doubt the pacing will tighten up as the run continues.  Missy Miller's Sharla Smith delivers a lot of comic relief early on, but plays a much more serious part later, and Miller spans that gap wonderfully.  Jason Cannon gives Killer Joe Cooper a steely quality that's hard to resist.  As corrupt as he is, Cannon's Killer Joe displays a polite, calm but threatening self-assured presence that takes you from the minute he walks onstage.  He also comes off as the most intelligent one in this group.  You can understand why Rachel Fenton's Dottie Smith falls for him.  Fenton delivers a subtle, quiet, courageous performance as Dottie, who notes that Joe's "eyes hurt".  She's a bit of a wallflower, getting lost in the background at first, but once she takes center stage, Fenton's performance, while still submissive, is commanding.

From the opening moments peppered with thunder and a yard dog's barking, plus the almost constant sound of the television or radio, Robin Weatherall's sound design really sets the mood.  Costumes by Teresa Doggett blend perfectly along with Patrick Huber's terrific scenic and lighting design.

If you're like me, and you like sour candy, check it out.  Even if you don't like sour candy per se…  *sigh*  I'm still trying to work that metaphor.  Anyway, you won't be sorry.

Larry Dell (Ansel Smith), Missy Miller (Sharla Smith)
and Jason Cannon (Killer Joe Cooper).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Written by Tracy Letts 
Directed by Milton Zoth
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through April 22 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

James E. Slover (Chris Smith), Missy Miller (Sharla Smith), Larry Dell (Ansel Smith), Rachel Fenton (Dottie Smith) and Jason Cannon* (Killer Joe Cooper).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic & lighting design by Patrick Huber; sound design by Robin Weatherall; costume design by Teresa Doggett; fight choreography by Brian Peters; scenic painter, Cristie Johnston; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.


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