Stand-up comedian David Cross used to have a bit in his routine about the remarkable consistency of the redneck dialect, even when separated by vast geographic area. "F__ you, maan, Ahm from Statesburuh, Jorja," he would twang, before traveling thousands of miles to the west in an instant: "Well, f__ you, maan, this's how we do it in Bozeman, Montanah." Finally: "Hey, f__ all y'all, this's how we do it in Ankradge, Alaaskuh!"
Cross’s joke trades on our familiarity with the shared stereotypes attributed to a class of people which Newsweek, in a recent article about our moose huntin’, six-packin’ VP nominee, more euphemistically referred to as “regular folk.”
As soon as I walked into the Gremlin Theatre to see Theater Pro Rata’s production of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, it was clear this play was going to be about regular folk. The set was strewn with familiar anthropological clues: tin foil on the TV antenna; a calendar poster of hot rods above an ugly couch with torn upholstery; a kitchen floor painted to resemble cheap linoleum tile; a kitchen counter full of empty beer bottles and a sink full of dirty dishes; and an empty bucket of KFC on top of a dingy refrigerator.
And then Sharla (Katherine Kupiecki) walks in and answers the door wearing only a ripped Hard Rock Café t-shirt—bare-assed and full-bushed. At the screen door is her idiot small time dealer of a stepson, Chris (Clarence Wethern), coming to ask his dad, Ansel (Sam L. Landman) for more money. After Chris tells Sharla to put on a pair of panties, she wakes up Ansel. Father and son sit on a couch in the middle of the night, and as dad lights up a Marlboro, Chris rolls a joint from a bag hidden under the couch cushion. “Where did you get this stuff?” Chris asks with some skepticism. “You,” Ansel says.
Sure, it’s a shocking tableau for the theatre, but you’ve seen these people before—these regular folk—maybe on reality TV shows like Cops, or maybe at your family Christmas party. Killer Joe is actually set in some rural someplace outside of Dallas, Texas, in an era (judging from what’s playing on the radio) twenty-five years back, at least. But with the stock market doing what it’s doing, and with all the chatter about regular folk and Wal Mart Republicans, this play could be set somewhere outside of Lakeville, sometime tomorrow. (I mean, people in Lakeville listen to Johnny Cash and drink beer in their underwear. They’re just like us, right?)
Either way, it’s clear that these characters live a long way off either Wall Street or Main Street. “I’ve never even had $1,000,” Ansel complains in the middle of Chris latest get “rich” quick solicitation. This one is (as regular folk say?) a real hum-dinger: hire a hit man to knock off Chris’ mom and Ansel’s ex-wife, and collect on her $50,000 life insurance policy. They would split the cash four ways, with $25K going to the hit man, Joe, and the rest split between Chris, Ansel, Sharla, and Chris’s guileless, sleepwalking twenty-year-old sister, Dottie, who is the one named as the beneficiary to her mother’s policy.
There’s only one hang-up: the hit man, a shady Dallas detective named Joe, won’t take the job unless he’s paid his $25K fee up front. “No exceptions,” he says. But just before walking out on Chris and Ansel, Joe hesitates at the door: “I would consider a retainer.” He means Dottie, whom Joe interrupted doing “[her] kung fu” in front of the television set before Chris and Ansel arrived for the meeting.
It’s against this backdrop of empty buckets of “K-fry-C” and empty beer bottles that Killer Joe makes its moral inquiries. There is real nudity in this play, and there is fake blood, but both feel necessary to lending its two white-trash love triangles weight. Chris plays matchmaker here, but this isn’t a Jane Austen adaptation, and he’s no Emma. Nor is Dottie—played by Katie Willer with a sensitivity and a naiveté reminiscent of the Glass Menagerie's Laura Wingfield—a victim straight off the set of Maury. Underneath Dottie's veil of dazed idiocy, she seems to be calculating just how limited her options are: a doomed matriculation into a local “modeling school,” or a doomed relationship with a contract killer.
And then there’s Joe. Zach Curtis is a big man, and his size and weight allow him to let Joe’s latent malice play peekaboo with his geniality—it’s as if Seth Rogen had a great big love child with Anton Chigurh. And while Joe is twisted (he sees Dottie in the same way he saw the southern bank of the Red River when he was a boy—as property) he might be the only character that really cares for her. Killer Joe might be as regular as these folk get.