Killer Joe tells the story of a greedy, vindictive famly. (photo by Andrew Klaver)
A crazy, violent, Texas family plots a murder in the play Killer Joe. Playwright Tracy Letts has a way with lousy families and their dangerous disputes. Letts also wrote August: Osage County, about another angry family, the recent film version of which had an all-star cast. A 2011 film version of Killer Joe starred Matthew McConaughey. With this production of the play, director Chelsea Haberlin creates a compelling portrait of an unhappy family’s destruction after it invites a devil into its midst.
Killer Joe was first produced for the stage in 1993 but it is set in the 1970s in a mobile home somewhere in Texas. This is only the second site-specific production by Vancouver’s Itsazoo Productions, and it is a great success. The site for this piece is a small, portable building in the parking lot of the Italian Cultural Centre. The interior is dressed to look like a mobile home.
The story follows a family in which Ansel (Ted Cole) and his adult son, Chris (Sebastien Archibald), conspire to kill Ansel’s former wife (Chris’ mother) to collect the insurance money. Chris’ sister, Dottie (Meaghan Chenosky), they know, is beneficiary of the $50,000 policy. They hire a hit man, Joe (Colby Wilson), who agrees to the hit but, as a retainer against full payment, demands Dottie as his sex slave. Ansel and Chris agree, and Chris’ mild-mannered, innocent sister is served up to this vile character. The balance of the play chronicles the family’s destruction at the hands of Joe. For almost the whole play, the family awaits word that the murder has occurred. Although the primary story is about a planned hit, the real story is about Dottie: how the young woman is degraded and betrayed by her own terrible family and how she survives.
The 35-member audience (a full house) is crowded into a small, temporary building decorated inside to feel like a real mobile home. The audience lines two walls, putting us only a foot or less from the action. We are the invisible inhabitants of a tiny battleground.
The real star of this show is the artistic collaboration between set, lighting and sound designers who create the home of a poverty-stricken Texas family. Set and lighting designer Lauchlin Johnston dresses the scene with ugly period furniture. Above the sink is a large Confederate flag. He cleverly turns night into day by shining “sunlight” through the mobile home’s real windows. He also manages lightning, gloom and total blackouts with dramatic effect. Sound by Mishelle Cuttler gives us thunder and rain from outside, the frequent barking of a neighbor’s dog, and poor sound quality for the country music broadcast from a cheap transistor radio that sits on the set. The effect of all this work is a perfect illusion. We are inside a mobile home in 1970s Texas.
Chenosky is excellent as the shy and innocent Dottie. In an early scene, she and Joe are alone in the kitchen as he tries to seduce her but ends up demanding her sexual obedience. We watch Chenosky operate a character who moves from shyness to fear and then to emotionless acquiescence. Her performance is devastating as she becomes emotionally numb in preparation for the inevitable (offstage) assaults. Chenosky’s Dottie captures the character’s poor self-esteem and an apparent history of mistreatment. It’s a heart-breaking portrait. The destruction of women by cruel and stupid men is a core theme of this play.
The other power in the show belongs to Joe, the hit man. Wilson is an imposing figure. He is physically large and carries himself with an air of authority. He is a cop, after all. Colby’s performance allows us to see the quiet cruelty of which humans are capable. Through movement and voice he establishes the play’s underlying tone of menace.
This production goes off the rails about 20 minutes before it ends. Once the main action of the play is resolved, the story shifts to Joe and Dottie in a way that is not supported by the direction. It becomes apparent the play is really about what will happen to Dottie, but that has been unclear to this point. That leaves the end of the play a drawn-out affair with no story left to tell.
Overall, however, this second site-specific production by Itsazoo is excellent. We can look forward to the next surprising and compelling work that takes us out of the comfort zone of a standard theatre.
Michael Groberman is a Vancouver freelance writer.