If you look to Killer Joe for contemporary relevance in terms of the play’s contribution to social commentary, it will fall short.
But, if you look at Killer Joe from the perspective of how many times actor Matthew Edison will make you want to run crying for your mommy, it wins.
This 1990 play is built upon an American “redneck” stereotype and structured around a poor, southern family, whose demise is a result of years of poor parenting, low income and shady morals.
I am by no means saying that the attitudes and lifestyles of the characters in Killer Joe do not exist at all today, just that societal perspectives of these views have changed a lot over the years.
While playwright Tracy Letts wrote Killer Joe as his first play, meant to incite shock among audience members, it is not so much the shock that gets us today.
Rather, we are repulsed by it all.
As our society continues to progress on the feminism spectrum, it is the heightened misogyny, rape culture and disposability of women in this play that has us staggering backwards and feeling queasy.
Before entering the show we are hit with several trigger warnings. There will be smoking, drinking, nudity, coarse language, yada, yada, yada -- nothing the regular theatregoer hasn’t seen before.
The real sensitive aspects of this show are not derived from what the characters are doing, but rather, who gets to do what, and when.
Chris Smith (Matthew Gouveia) owes money to some drug lords. He also hates his mother. What better way to kill two birds with one stone than to have his mother murdered and collect her money to pay his debts? This is the plan he and his father Ansel (Paul Fauteux) agree to.
Then, of course, being the two incompetent fools they are, they hire the high and mighty Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew Edison) to get the job done.
So a woman’s life is being traded for drug money. Totally cool.
This degradation and violent/sexual abuse of women is a common feature throughout.
The show opens with Chris’ stepmother Sharla (Madison Walsh) answering the door to her stepson completely nude from the waist down. Her stepson is maddened by this, creating a big stink until she finally retreats to go put on some underwear. She is repeatedly reminded to hide her sexuality throughout the play, until Killer Joe forces her into violent sexual activity, all throughout which her husband says nothing and does nothing to defend her.
Chris’ younger sister Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas), on the other hand, is the sacrificial lamb of the play, constantly being defined by her sexual innocence. It is not her personality, but her virginity that makes her valuable in the eyes of Killer Joe. In her father’s perspective, it is fine for her to hide her sexuality, until a man requests for it to be shown.
The actors all viciously own their roles, creating this toxic, desperate atmosphere the characters must all endure for one reason or another. Each character somehow becomes indebted to Killer Joe, and Edison does a fine job at switching from charming to creepy in the blink of an eye.
Then there’s the aesthetic design.
An unkept family room. An old green sofa. A white kitchen riddled with junk and covered in ground-in dirt.
This is the masterpiece of Patrick Lavender, who puts glorious detail into the set.
When it rains, the audience can see the water through the translucent roof of the dimly lit house setting we are all cramped into.
The seating is wildly uncomfortable, which totally works for this type of play (be prepared to literally touch elbows with the people next to you) as you sit and watch the dark crime story unfold.
It’s one big selfish, disgusting world, and you’re sitting in it.
Directed by Peter Pasyk, Killer Joe plays at the Coal Mine Theatre until April 24. For more information visit http://www.coalminetheatre.com/.