By: Tracy Letts
Directed by: Rick Snyder
At the Royal George Theatre
Killer Joe’s extended run at The Royal George is a nerve-racking night of gritty theatre.
What can be said about this play that hasn’t been said already? Profiles Theatre’s production of Killer Joe by Tracy Letts has already been extended multiple times and is now enjoying a new run at the Royal George Theatre’s cabaret space. Prior to seeing this production I have heard nothing but good things about the show and it is easy to see why. Although the Cabaret space at the Royal George may not have the claustrophobic intimacy of the Profiles space, it is small enough to not lose the up close and personal touch that must have come with the original run. It is two hours of riveting theatre that will keep you on edge until the lights come down.
Considering this play has already been running for several months I do not want to sound like a broken record with the plot, but for those unfamiliar the story centers around the Smith family. Chris (Kevin Bigley), Sharla (Somer Benson), Ansel (Howie Johnson), and Dottie (Claire Wellin) live in squalor in a trailer park in Texas. Chris gets into trouble and owes money to some thugs, so he plants the idea in Ansel’s head that they should kill Chris and Dottie’s biological mother and collect on her insurance policy. To do so, they hire a notorious Sheriff, who does a little “extra” on the side, Killer Joe Cooper (Darrell W. Cox). What begins as a simple job quickly implodes and spirals downward into the abyss to a heart-stopping conclusion. I don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said, but this is a perfectly cast ensemble. Every actor is precise, connected, and intense. I’m normally not a fan of excessive yelling in scenes, but in this environment it works. Darrell W. Cox as Killer Joe has a silent rage about him that doesn’t explode until the second act. Even when Joe is moderately kind, the monster is seen lurking underneath. Claire Wellin’s performance as Dottie is brave, poignant, and haunting. Kevin Bigley as Chris delivers what may be the best monologue of the play near the beginning of the second act. Somer Benson as Sharla and Howie Johnson as Ansel are a hilarious couple, that find deep emotional range as the play progresses. It is easy to see how actors could be trapped into making these characters stereotypes, but everyone has created a character with stunning emotional depth and humanity (or lack thereof).
Even though the acting is phenomenal, I think the biggest reason for the success of this production is the direction of Rick Snyder. This production utilizes its silent moments better than almost any production I’ve seen. Every silent moment is stuffed with tension, creating a riveting sense of danger and uneasiness. The feelings of the characters translate directly to the audience, which has to endure every nerve-racking, stomach-churning scene. There is also a sense of respect for the material, as the darker moments are done with exactness and artistry. It doesn’t let the audience off the hook by making these scenes easy to watch, but it does not feel like exploitation or shock for the sake of shock. I have no problem seeing a play or movie with gratuitous violence, nudity, or language, as long as it fits the world and is not done to exploit the actors or shock the audience for no discernable reason. This play falls into that category. For as uncomfortable as the play gets, I found myself laughing at moments that shocked me. When the lights went down I was in a fit of uncontrollable laughter; not exactly the reaction I expected. Mr. Snyder has put together a production with a twisted sense of humor that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.
The technical crew deserves just as many accolades as the director and actors of this production. I’m not sure how this set compares to the one in the Profiles space, but the realistic design of Sotirios Livaditis doesn’t just show the trailer, he brings you into the trailer itself. The transitions from scene to scene, including the deceptively simple lighting design of Jess Harpenau, make sure the tension remains taut. Very seldom do I mention the sound design, but Kevin O’Donnell’s sound & music choices add an unexpected sense of dread and uncomfortable humor that contributes another great layer to the show. The entire technical crew deserves just as much credit for the success of this production.
If you haven’t seen this show yet, you’ve got the chance to do so now. For those who saw it at the Profiles space may miss a little of the intimacy, but if you nab a seat in the front few rows you will be just as close to the action. Also, for those who were too uncomfortable to see the show at the Profiles space have the choice to get tickets a little further back from the action. Be forewarned: This show is intense. It contains some very uncomfortable scenes, violence, nudity, gunshots, and a good amount of nastiness; that being said, it deserves all of the praise it has received. I would also say to be careful if you have a heart condition because your heart will be racing from start to finish.
Date of Review: 4/23/10
At The Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60614. Tickets $30-$40. Call 312-988-9000. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 5:00 PM, Sundays at 7:00 PM. Running time is approximately 2 hours with intermission. Through June 6, 2010.