Review: Killer Joe

KILLER JOE by Tracy Letts (Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth). Runs to April 24. $35. coalminetheatre.com. See Continuing. Rating: NNNLong.


KILLER JOE by Tracy Letts (Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth). Runs to April 24. $35. coalminetheatre.com. See Continuing. Rating: NNN

Long before he got all respectable with his award-winning family drama August: Osage County, Tracy Letts made a bang-up debut with Killer Joe, a deep-fried Southern noir about an even more dysfunctional and dangerous family.

The play, which doesn’t care one fig about respectability, gets its Toronto premiere at the Coal Mine Theatre, which specializes in polished productions of gritty scripts.

Chris (Matthew Gouveia) is deep in debt, so he hatches a harebrained scheme to kill his mother and collect her insurance money. He’ll share the cash with his dad, Ansel (Paul Fauteux), his step-mom, Sharla (Madison Walsh), and his mentally challenged sister, Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas).

Since Chris can’t pay professional hit man Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew Edison) until the deed is done and the insurance money is paid out, Joe takes Dottie as “a retainer.” And of course, things don’t go according to plan.

Director Peter Pasyk has fun with the silly premise, and Patrick Lavender‘s design – complete with Confederate flag, Lynyrd Skynard poster and barking dog outside – is evocative, although it doesn’t quite feel like we’re in a trailer.

The actors are generally good, particularly Fauteux’s grizzled and defeated dad, often clad only in his tighty whities, and Endicott-Douglas, whose spacey pronouncements have a touch of magic about them. But Walsh’s Sharla could use more shading and subtlety. And although Edison is an intelligent, fine artist, he’s miscast here. You always sense him acting, lowering his voice to an unconvincing pitch, and adopting a swagger as if he’s trying to impersonate John Wayne.

In their production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker With The Hat, Coal Mine made the marginalized characters sympathetic. Here, a condescending, sneering attitude toward the characters leaves a bad odour.

And I’m not just referring to the lingering smell of fried chicken, which gets used as an unusual prop in one of the production’s more shocking, if unconvincing, scenes.

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