By Martin F. Kohn
Meet the Smiths, a family whose moral compass appears to have been de-magnetized, in Tracy Letts’ dark comedy “Killer Joe.”
Dark? It’s more like a black hole. So little light escapes that the gut reaction to the play might be that the trailer-dwelling Smiths and the title character, a hit man, constitute Exhibits A through E in the case for retroactive abortion.
Credit for their convincing loathsomeness belongs to director Joe Plambeck and the actors in Who Wants Cake? Theatre’s nicely executed production of Letts’ play at Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre.
If his name sounds familiar it’s likely because Letts won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for “August: Osage County,” currently on Broadway. The Ringwald gang staged Letts’ “Bug” last season.
“Killer Joe” was his first produced play, in 1993, and according to at least one expert it established a precedent. “Everybody in Tracy’s stories gets naked or dead,” his mother, Billie Letts, told the Dallas Observer in an interview.
That certainly holds true for the five characters on stage in “Killer Joe,” and for two others who never appear. As there’s not much point in offstage nudity, draw what conclusions you will about characters unseen.
The action begins on a dark and stormy night with son Chris (John Ager) banging on the door of his father and stepmother’s trailer. Stepmother Sharla (Jamie Warrow) greets him clad only in a T-shirt; dad Ansel (Jamie Richards) enters from the bedroom wearing underpants and the three proceed to yell at each other for quite a while.
Chris has been thrown out of his dwelling place by Adele, who turns out not to be his wife or his girlfriend but his mother. See, Chris had shoved Mom (whom we never see) against the refrigerator because she stole the cocaine he was going to sell and now he has to come up with $6,000 for his supplier “or some guys are gonna kill me.”
But Chris sees a way out. If his dad can front him some money there’s this hit man, Joe Cooper (Joel Mitchell), who’ll dispatch Adele so they can all collect on her life insurance policy. Ansel is amenable to rubbing out his ex, Sharla has no objections and the fourth Smith, wide-eyed and childlike Dottie (Christa Coulter) – Chris’ sister and Ansel’s 20-year-old daughter – seems incapable of rendering an opinion on anything.
Trouble is, nobody has any money. Killer Joe has an idea worthy of Rumpelstiltskin, which is how he comes to live with the Smiths.
What follows is a cycle of TV watching, beer drinking, door slamming, violence, betrayal, degradation, possible incest and revelations of an unhappy past and a twist worthy of O. Henry if he were, you know, twisted.
Among a pack of good performances, Mitchell makes Killer Joe, a brute with a soft spot, plausible, and Coulter’s waiflike, damaged Dottie is especially believable.
Fight choreographer Kevin T. Young deserves special mention for making all the brutality look real; it’s at the visceral level that “Killer Joe” really works.
Who Wants Cake Theatre, The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday-Monday through April 27. $10-$20. 248-545-5545. http://www.whowantscaketheatre.com