John Grisham said in The Rainmaker that murderers usually make 25 mistakes committing the crime and are lucky to remember five. Killer Joe is a challenging play that illustrates such a tangled situation with overwhelming intensity as a trailer park family finds itself completely over its head attempting it.
In a Texas trailer park at the residence of Sharla (Roya Haikim) and Ansel Smith (Mikhel Kutti), their stepson, Chris (Andrew Sturrock), needs to satisfy a $6000 mob debt or face death. In desperation, they contact “Killer” Joe Cooper, a police detective who moonlights as a hired killer, to murder Chris’ mother for her life insurance money. However, the only way they can afford him is to offer the company of Chris’ naive sister, Dotty (Kalina Hada-Lemon), as a retainer. With the deal made, Joe takes advantage of her even as Chris has growing second thoughts about the plan. Eventually, everything starts to go wrong while Joe exacts his price for his services by any means he desires.
You might come to this play expecting the typical crime story; instead you will enjoy a classic Southern Gothic horror tale and a harrowing dramatic ride. Reflecting that, the play has a challenging downbeat tone as a poor fractious family finds itself sinking into an inescapable nightmare because they didn’t think about the basic facts before they started. In this struggle, wisdom is beyond everyone and even empathy comes at a terrible cost that only doomed heroes can begin to pay.
The stagecraft brings that home with the grimy setting that exudes the essential hopelessness that is obviously choking all the characters at the beginning of the story. The sound of the TV seals the ambiance deal with a stream of pop culture inanity (Chuck Jones cartoons aside) that reinforces the smallness of the world and their own troubles. When the blood finally spills at the end, it feels more like the scab of everyone’s false hopes and pretenses is torn away and the consequences of letting a monster into their lives becomes horribly clear.
In that regard, Sturrock anchors the tragedy playing an evocative fool as Chris, a young man who tried to follow the straight and narrow, but has neither the intelligence or the emotional strength to survive. Part of his journey is his realization that there has to be something to live for and his conscience drives him to a fateful decision. Chris’s flailing in half-baked desperation on the way, only to take on a clumsy heroism after realizing how much of a sucker he has been, is the epitome of working class drama.
By contrast, Milne shines powerfully as the title character who slowly dominates the Smiths with a silk-wrapped soul of deadly steel guided by a strict and twisted code of honour that makes his menacing air feel balefully credible. By both word and deed, Milne holds the center stage with an iron grip even as you are transfixed at his malevolent presence, unable to guess his next move. When Joe finally lashes out at the end with depraved fury, Milne brings the play into a shattering crescendo until a final twist brings it all into perspective.
Between those two male archetypes, Kalina Hada-Lemon excels as Dotty, an emotionally disturbed innocent who endures through the story alternating between both victim and participant as her erratic personality takes her. When Dotty has to submit to Joe’s lust, Hada-Lemon makes her fear and agonizing shame feel all the more powerful as she realizes just how much of a pawn she has become. As it is, she is the closest thing to an innocent in this story, but she has her own agenda, even if she is not consciously aware of it most of the time. That makes her final actions all the more shattering as she takes control with a forcefulness no one expects, with a final bombshell whose final detonation you are left to decide for yourself.
Against these powerful character, Hakami’s rendition of Sharla feels more two-dimensional as the stereotypical shrew. However, the character gains some dramatic weight as she blunders and pays the price with a soul-breaking experience that will leave you agape. Just seeing her trying to take on some normality afterward with the threat over her is an unforgettable image. Finally, Mikhel Kutti holds up the emotional foundation as Ansel, a laconic pawn who defies all the cliches to become the most helpless of all as a father of a family careening into a terrifying collision with utter madness.
Make no mistake, this is not a play for the timid, or the weak of emotional stomach. However, if you want to have a theatrical experience that crackles with the kind of emotional energy that gives this irreverent trailer park tragedy an explosive power, then dare yourself to try it.