Pure and Perverse

Etcetera's 'Killer Joe' is dark, touching and hilarious all at once

It should come as no surprise that if you mix stupid, cash-strapped and desperate into some sort of white-trash cocktail, you'll end up serving it to the devil, or at least one of his official representatives.

We and the Smith family learn this quite bluntly in Tracy Letts' Killer Joe, which Etcetera, Live Theatre Workshop's late-night series, let loose last weekend.

Christopher Johnson directs this disturbing yet hilarious story of the Smiths, a misguided family that does not understand what they're getting mixed up in. Johnson and his cast hook this Texas-size fish tale from the get-go, and what we get is a mad, bodacious, in-your-face adventure. No finesse, no excuses, no time to think. Just sit back, they seem to say, and hang on.

Young buck Chris Smith (Steve Wood) seeks refuge in his father's single-wide because he's indebted to a dangerous sort who is threatening bad, bad things. He asks his father, Ansel (Michael Woodson), for a "little" money—$6,000, a sum, it would be fair to guess, that his father has not seen cumulatively in his entire life. Chris proposes that they have Adele, Chris' mother and Ansel's ex, done away with. Chris has it on good authority that Adele has a hefty life insurance policy, the beneficiary of which is Dottie (Miranda McBride), Chris' sister, who has never been quite right since Adele tried to smother her to death when she was a baby.

Ansel is appalled at the idea, but when Chris incisively inquires whether Adele is really doing anybody much good alive, the obvious answer makes it much easier for Ansel to agree with Chris' proposition. So "Killer Joe" Cooper (Eric Anson), who is a peace officer by day, is enlisted to dispose of Adele. Ansel and Chris want to keep this on the down low, but Dottie, who has a tendency to wander around in her sleep, overhears the talk of conspiracy—but expresses little in the way of alarm. Meanwhile, Sharla (Kristi Loera), Ansel's current wife, is clandestinely carrying on with Rex, Adele's current husband.

What do you bet this won't end well?

Letts' play is playful, teasing and shocking. Considering the material, it could come off as cheap, but it doesn't. But neither does it seriously attempt to plumb depths or offer insights into our psyches and behavior. And thankfully, it doesn't preach.

What it does provide is a raw, exuberant and disturbingly visceral experience. It reaches out and grabs us and makes absolutely sure that it's impossible to remain neutral. In other words, it seeks to do what theater does best: It's immediate. It gathers and holds us in a shared moment which can never be visited again. Letts gets it. And so do Johnson and company.

Michael Woodson, as Ansel, is simply a gem. Although he has allowed a constantly blaring television to provide the soundtrack to his life, and is now convinced that it actually might be OK to kill someone, Woodson's Ansel exudes an endearing innocence, even sweetness. Oh, and he's drop-dead funny. It makes one a bit uneasy to try to figure how he gets this character so well. This role is an achievement for Woodson.

Offering her completely bared flesh for all to see, Loera is the perfect trashy trailer tart. Someone who seems to eschew laundry and bathing, Loera's Sharla sniffs for clean jeans and spritzes cologne on her womanly parts, an act which Ansel describes as "fumigating the gates of hell." Loera's performance is courageous in both Sharla's strong-headedness and her sobering comeuppance.

As Dottie, McBride is odd without being gimmicky. She is the pawn in this game, and she manages to combine her quirkiness with a heartbreaking vulnerability. This is a tough role, and McBride handles it well.

Wood, as her brother, Chris, also performs capably, and in his ultimate desire to protect Dottie, we see that he's not completely evil, although he has selfishly demanded that his family sacrifice so much for him.

Unfortunately, Anson's embodiment of Killer Joe is the weakest performance. Joe needs to offer a sophisticated contrast to the Smiths' world, and an intelligence to devise and orchestrate the many ways he can mess with them. Anson just doesn't quite get there. Instead of seeking nuanced ways of making Joe a dangerous character, he latches onto the obvious choice of simply being sinister. Fortunately, he invests enough in this one note to keep the story effective.

Much is asked of these actors, and they embrace with great heart their unattractive characters, who are at once comic, touching and horrible. In turn, we can't resist embracing them.

This production is far from perfect, but it doesn't need to be. Be warned: This is not pretty theater—but Letts mesmerizes us in ways both pure and perverse.

Go, and let your eyes widen and your jaw drop. Let yourself gasp and guffaw. You'll know you're alive.

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