Theater of Thought has done it again, this time with dark humor and Texas accents, as it amplifies theatrical reality with a site-specific rendition of Killer Joe, a seriocomic play by Tracy Letts (through May 29).
In recent years artistic director and producer Amber Kelly has excited the local theater scene with intensified dramas, rendering them in a kind of stage 3D. She’s taken audiences to such story-specific settings as a deteriorating cottage in the woods, because a character is holed up in a remote cabin during an Alaska winter; and to a motel room, where we’re invisible voyeurs seated behind a crumpled bed or on bleachers watching through the picture window, like a TV screen before us.
THE FIXER Joe Ouellette in Killer Joe.
This time we are installed alongside a mobile home parked between empty mill buildings, its top and side carved away. We might as well be lifting up a rock, for all the helter-skelter creepiness going on down there.
From the moment these characters walk into their first scene — or, more typically, rush — playwright Letts makes sure they unambiguously show us who they are. At the opening, Chris (Josh Short) is banging desperately on the trailer door to get in, and Sharla (Rae Mancini), his stepmother, scurries to the door half-naked. His father, Ansel (Brien Lang), tries to pacify his hysterics by breaking open a baggie of weed. His sister, Dottie (Amber Kelly), is sleepwalking and sleep-talking when she first appears, but her semi-conscious way of speaking remains throughout, which is understandable considering the familial nightmare she’s in.
The black humor comes from some very dark things that seem neutral gray to these broken souls. In the initial father-son conversation, Chris insists that throwing his mother against the refrigerator didn’t amount to hitting her. And after all, she had stolen his coke. But Chris’s real problem regarding drugs is that he has to come up with $6000 soon or he’ll be killed. By the time he shows up with a mangled hand badly wrapped in a bloody bandage, we know he’s not making things up.
The solution they arrive at for raising the money seems perfectly reasonable to this crazed crew. Chris was told that a $50,000 life insurance policy was taken out on his mother, with his bubbleheaded sister as the beneficiary. Ta-daaa. Problem solved. Chris even knows how to get the job done — by a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a killer.
Joe Ouellette is a perfect Joe, central casting big and handsome, the right rugged look for CSI: Deserved Victims Unit. Director Matt Fraza has fine-tuned all the performances, and he has Joe intimidate in the less-is-more manner of authority figures who know the power of silent stares.
Since this whole family is pretty chipper about the prospect of coming into some money so easily and getting rid of a vaguely annoying relative, Joe doesn’t have to be a grim villain on his own — collectively, they all amount to one. But Joe does segue into the sort of remorseless, twisted bad guy you’d expect of somebody who has done this before.