Saturday, February 27, 2016

TOTS grips family values by the throat in Tracy Letts' 'Killer Joe'

The first scene of "Killer Joe" gets right down to work. And there is no let-up.

Over the next hour-and-a-half, the blackouts between scenes are both a theatrical convenience and chance for a rapt, sometimes appalled audience to catch its breath. I often had to remind myself to exhale at Theatre on the Square Friday night.

Tracy Letts, a playwright whose rising star became a place to watch in the theater heavens with "August: Osage Country," was on to something in his first play. He was prophetic of a situation this political year has brought into the mainstream: People searching for personal advantage tend to suppress the hard work of examining their desired future in detail. Instead, they will press forward by exploiting weaknesses in their opponents. If you stand in the way, prepare to be obliterated. They will work behind your back. They will also get in your face.

Neither in a nation nor in a family is the modus operandi likely to come out well. In that first scene of TOTS' "Killer Joe," director Lori Raffel pits Sharla, the second wife of Ansel Smith, the ineffectual head of a trailer-park household outside Dallas, against Chris, Ansel's aimless but headstrong son.

Profane energy of anger and insult gushes from Stage Two's shallow set as Chris self-servingly describes the spat with his mother that's just led to his being kicked out again. He can't do that, of course, without gratuitously berating his stepmother in the grossest possible terms.

We receive this sort of setup as a white-trash comedy at our peril. TOTS has a history with such shows, but "Killer Joe" is a different animal. In part, the decline of our public conversation in this year of decision helps the drama become an "All My Sons" for our time: An ethical floor has collapsed beneath our feet; we're down in a dank cellar groping for understanding and desperate rescue. (Marco Rubio understands this situation in his ongoing mud-wrestling with Donald Trump.)

Siblings at loose ends: Dottie and Chris try to envision the future.
The Smith family, prodded by Chris — who turns out to be as clueless as his father — engages an undiagnosed
psychopath, a Dallas cop with a rub-out sideline, to master its fate. By the time Killer Joe's part of the deal has been carried out, and the unaware Chris tries wriggling out of the deal, the cop has long had the upper hand with the Smiths.

He's gotten unrestricted access to Chris' inhibited sister, Dottie, as a "retainer" fee because the family can't pay him up front. On the radio in this scene, you can hear a preacher emphatically reassuring the faithful: "You have legal authority over the angelic realm through Jesus Christ."

It's one of several scenes that strike particularly deep. The irony of the sermon excerpt the audience overhears is that worldly authority is now vested in the most aggressive, ruthless and goal-oriented among us. And the realm they rule over is thoroughly secularized and fragmented. Holding sway over the angelic realm means about as much as building hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, with currency of like worth (except to believers). Dottie's modeling and martial-arts fantasies are one way of dealing with the discrepancy.

Ben Asaykwee is hypnotic as Killer Joe. When his voice rises to fury, as it does in the most astonishing fight scene at close quarters I've ever experienced in the theater, it exposes the bitterness that has driven Detective Joe Cooper to work both sides of the law.  Normally, the voice is steady and commanding. Asaykwee faces the audience in many of Killer Joe's speeches, but his steely gaze and chilling voice have the same impact as when he full-frontally directs them at the Smith family.

Killer Joe (Ben Asaykwee) looks at — and through — Sharla (Lisa Marie Smith).
Nate Walden and Lisa Marie Smith build well on the opening scene, where they go at each other unrestrained as Chris and Sharla. They are "Killer Joe"'s most calculating characters, each headed for a violent comeuppance. The performances Friday had moments of coarse humor that were perfectly judged amid the eventually overwhelming pathos.

Dan Scharbrough lends his stature and booming voice creditably to the role of Ansel. Those qualities are poignant in light of the father's feckless command of his family. The disdain in which everyone holds Ansel's ex-wife creates the opening the schemers need to set their dark plans in motion.

Killer Joe is dealing from the bottom of the deck, however, though even he seems in danger of losing control in the final scene, when Dottie leaves for the bedroom. Her move is decisive, and is handled with excruciating tension in this production. Rising to heart-rending independence in Jaddy Ciucci's riveting performance, Dottie may have shed her oppression and marginalization. Who knows?

It's a mirror image of the trick moment in horror films, when you're dying to warn an endangered, sympathetic character: "Don't go in there!" Here the horror is in the room Dottie is leaving, however, and we don't know what we want her to do. It seems like the longest walk ever. When she returns moments later, everything turns out as right as it's going to get in this badly damaged world.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]