Surviving the vivid depravity of Killer Joe

Brutal honesty

By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  March 30, 2011

Owing money to the wrong dudes, young Texas fuck-up and minor drug dealer Chris Smith (Christopher Reiling) hatches a fundraising plan: Hire a hit-man to take out the estranged Smith matriarch — that is, his mom — then collect on her insurance to save his impecunious ass. The relative off-handedness with which this proposition is accepted by his father Ansel (Brent Askari), wanton step-mother Sharla (Shannon Campbell) and literally and figuratively sleepwalking sister Dottie (Casey Turner) gives a fair sense of how deeply embedded violence and misogyny are in their white-trash lives: All sorts of brutality — physical, emotional, sexual — are both implicit and explicit among the Smiths, even before they invite the chillingly competent killer, Joe (Brian Chamberlain), into their trailer. Then, when the Smiths don't have their blood money up front, Joe agrees to accept the virginal, mentally challenged Dottie as retainer.

This depraved, anesthetized normalcy is the culture of Killer Joe, the first play written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts. His ultra-disturbing dark comedy is on stage now as the latest show at SPACE Gallery, which continues its commendable recent increase in theatrical programming. Sean Mewshaw (the director/producer behind 2009's thrillingly multi-medial Speech and Debate, also at SPACE) directs a consummate production, with an impeccably cast corps of local actors and a superb crew of talents collaborating on the technical arts. The show is a testament to the remarkable caliber of work that Portland's diverse artists create when brought together.

For the Smiths' squalid trailer home, set designer Colin Sullivan-Stevens has created a space of detailed, claustrophobic realism, and it's spiked with a shot of Southern Gothic from Shauna Houston's lurid, dangerous blue lighting through the windows. Letts's characters are the modern grotesques you'd expect of the genre, and are fascinatingly appalling in these actors' portrayals. Reiling's lanky, amped-up Chris is nerve-wracking with jittery, volatile energy, while the great comic actor Askari grounds Ansel in crude comedy that yields bracingly to rage. In the hands of Campbell, Sharla, with her laughing, flesh-pot decadence, comes across convincingly as a woman who believes she's found the one power a woman has in these parts.

Particularly impressive is Turner, one of the most intuitive and versatile young actresses around, who invests her damaged Dottie with a haunting, truly horrible pathos; and as the man who so casually violates her, Chamberlain (garbed in the mercilessly sharp, dark Western lines of Betsy Upham's costume design) has adamantine authority and casual sadism that are truly frightening, even in a single steady gaze.

It should be clear by now that the graphic depictions of Killer Joe — including full frontal nudity, a fellated chicken leg, and blood and gore — should not be underestimated. Mewshaw's production of this smart but very nasty, very cold show is pitch-perfect — cynical, vertiginous, poisonously funny. But make no mistake: To sit through it is to come away feeling battered. While it's instructive to watch Letts's first play, with its morbid condemnation of an ignorant, exploitative, acquisitive American culture, I left SPACE grateful that Letts's literary powers have evolved to the complexity and nuance of the most excellent August: Osage County. Despite the wit that Letts infuses into the violence of Killer Joe, to watch these poor cretins and victims fuck each other up feels disconcertingly close to voyeurism.

Megan Grumbling can be reached at

KILLER JOE | by Tracy Letts | Directed and produced by Sean Mewshaw | Produced at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | through April 30 |