ORLANDO — Young and pretty Dottie Smith is watching a martial arts instruction program on television when the stranger at the front door starts knocking. Dottie has the volume on so loud that she doesn’t hear him, so he simply opens the door and walks in.
The man at the door is Joe Cooper, who has come to talk business with Dottie’s father, Ansel, and her brother Chris. But until they arrive, he chats for a few minutes with Dottie.
Dottie is sweet, has an aura of pure innocence about her, but also seems curious and inquisitive rather than shy. Cooper, a tall, handsome man, is soft spoken, respectful and well mannered. It quickly becomes clear that Dottie is entirely charmed by him – and that Cooper finds her quite appealing as well.
And then, in the midst of their rather routine bit of small talk, Dottie matter-of-factly asks the question – “Are you going to kill my mama?”
Welcome to the pitch dark world of playwright Tracy Letts’ thriller “Killer Joe,” an American Southern Gothic horror story set in a trailer home just outside Dallas – and that’s not even the most horrible part about it. With the exception of the good natured Dottie, the play asks the question of what happens when you put together a group of people who are alternately stupid, greedy, shallow, backstabbing, vicious, violent and loyal only to themselves? If you’re expecting Disney, keep looking.
Joe Cooper has indeed dropped by the home to discuss the terms of a deal to kill Dottie’s mom. That idea came from Chris, who owes $6,000 to some local thugs and desperately needs to raise it, fast. Of course his father Ansel, a mechanic, admits he’s never had a thousand dollars in his life, and besides, this is just one more deep hole that Chris has dug himself into.
But Chris did just learn that his mom has a life insurance policy worth $50,000. Since nobody in the family likes mom anyway, why not hire someone to kill her? The insurance money goes to Dottie, so the entire family can pay off a hitman and still have a decent sum left.
Cooper specializes in murder-for-hire, but he demands an up-front fee of $25,000 – which Chris and Ansel don’t have. But rather than walk away from the deal, Cooper suggests that they give him a “retainer” – ready access to the pretty and alluring young Dottie. Being among the least upstanding guys in town, Chris and Ansel agree.
Part of the appeal of “Killer Joe,” which is now being produced at Theatre Downtown, is – in addition to the grisly black humor of watching these mostly unlikable characters plot a cruel murder with the same relaxed attitude that they might bring to buying a new car – is the steady risk of violence, even extreme violence, that lurks right below the surface at all times. Desperate and near hysterical at times, Chris seems always on the verge of exploding, but Ansel is mostly a complete lunkhead, his wife Sharla is sarcastic and cranky, and Cooper seems the most relaxed and casual of them all. Watching them interact, you get the uneasy intuition that something absolutely shocking might happen …. but the play takes it’s time.
In fact, not even the night that Chris stumbles home, having suffered a terrible beating from the thugs he owes money to, do we get fully prepared for the ending – some clever twists to the plot, and then —
Well, watch and see for yourself.
Lotts’ play, which was also made into a 2011 movie with Matthew McConaughey, is one of those stories that is anything but a Valentine’s Day card to small town Texas. Greed, sexual perversion, betrayal and petty-minded stupidity are everywhere, even in a land that bills itself as a model for family values and traditional values. If there’s hypocrisy here, it could hardly be better illustrated than in the scene toward the end, when, after some horrific violence, Cooper insists that the entire family sit down to a nice dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and asks Dottie to say grace. Her prayers to the Lord are a scream, considering the grisly moments right before it.
“Killer Joe” alternates between moments of near hysteria, mostly prompted by panic-stricken Chris, and quieter ones – Cooper sampling Dottie’s tuna casserole on their first “date,” or Chris talking about how he had hoped to settle down as an honest man, and raise a rabbit farm, until a rabid skunk came along and messed it all up. But those quiet moments and the sly humor hardly prepare you for the apocalyptic ending. (“Killer Joe” may be the only play to have a truly traumatic scene involving, of all things, a fried chicken wing.)
The play, very stylishly directed by Frank Hilgenberg, benefits from a terrific ensemble. Frank Casado brings the right level of shrill panic and feverish anxiety to Chris, while Daniel Cooksley is superb in the way he delivers Cooper’s quiet intensity, like a snake in the grass that wants to take its time before it bites.
Ashley Wilson has perhaps the toughest role as Dottie – a character who is at times innocent, but also knowing, simple but not a simpleton. It would have been easy to just play the character for laughs, but instead Wilson turns Dottie into a real person – a fascinatingly complex one, the most surprising character of them all.
You don’t want to miss “Killer Joe,” frankly. By the time the lights rise at the end, you’re be gripping the edge of your seat.
“Killer Joe” is being performed through Nov. 1 at the theater at 2113 N. Orange Ave. in downtown Orlando. Tickets are $22 for general admission and $18 for students and seniors. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m. today.
Call 407-841-0083 for tickets and reservations.
Contact Freeline Media at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..