The play's action opens with a knocking at the door in the wee hours of the morning. The lady of the house--or rather...trailer--rouses herself from slumber to answer it, wearing only the skimpy t-shirt that is her customary nightwear. When her stepson, indignant at her greeting visitors while naked from the waist down, chides her, she protests, "I didn't know who it was!"
There seems to be no middle ground on Killer Joe. In the seven years since Tracy Letts' initial foray into playwriting premiered at the Next Theatre Lab, critics have reacted with enthusiastic accolades or enthusiastic vilifications. In 1993, the Chicago Tribune's Richard Christiansen praised the play "not only for the skill of its craftsmanship but for the depths of characterization that Letts has created for his bizarre tale." Hedy Weiss in the Sun-Times denounced it as "a hideous carnival of brutal degradation that leaves you numb and dirty." And the Reader's Jack Helbig, after acknowledging its literary and theatrical merits, ultimately found in the play "something so nasty, brutish and misogynistic [that] it all but cancels out the work's finer qualities."
All agreed, however, that Killer Joe was not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Audiences inured to commonplace sexual iconography squirmed during a scene where a virgin is charmed by a seducer exhorting her to put her clothes on, and gagged at another where a slattern proud of her fellative expertise is forced to demonstrate it on a fried-chicken leg. More disturbing to Americans, however, was the capitalist ethos underlying the motives of the economically bottom-drawer family who hires an assassin to do away with the clan matriarch for her insurance money. The bloodbath that concludes the series of mishaps and double-crosses engendered by this plan is appalling not so much for its cruelty as for its execution in obedience to the murderer's demand for his payment.
Despite the ambivalence of its initial assessment, Killer Joe proceeded to draw sellout crowds in Chicago for eight months. After productions by small companies in Albany and New York's Chelsea district, the newly-christened Hired Gun Production company--whose roster included original creative team members Letts, director Wilson Milam, actors Michael Shannon, Holly Wantuch, Marc A. Nelson, and Shawna Franks (with Eric Winzenried replacing Paul Dillon in the title role)--took their play to the 1994 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it promptly won a Fringe First award and attracted the attention of Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director at London's Bush Theatre.
Opening in the London pub-and-performance space in January 1995, Killer Joe proved an immediate hit with playgoers more comfortable at cross-cultural ridicule than their Yankee counterparts, as well as with British critics, who compared it to Jacobean tragedy and the Kitchen-Sink school of drama. "The enduring impact comes not from the violence itself, but the ease with which violent thoughts are accommodated," wrote Tom Morris in the Guardian. "Cynical, sick, exploitive and gross, but schlock horror doesn't come funnier or more compelling than this," chortled the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer. And readers of the Independent were assured by Irving Wardle that Killer Joe "has huge comic vitality as a projection of the American underclass." A transfer to the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End soon followed.
That left only New York to be conquered (the 1994 staging by the 29th Street Rep having been largely ignored by the press). With its West End cachets and a cast now featuring Scott Glenn and Amanda Plummer in lead roles, Killer Joe crept into Lower Manhattan's SoHo Theatre in 1998.
Critics were torn once again between the play's pleasures and its improprieties. Ben Brantley in The New York Times declared it "a portrait of an American world so numbed that carnage fits comfortably into the everyday domestic landscape." Clive Barnes in the New York Post admired its "gothic charm." And Times critic Vincent Canby called the play "a violent, satiric and often dangerously funny family comedy," an assessment leading to many stunned playgoers, who anticipated a farce along the lines of Joe Orton and found something much creepier.
Given its track record, the response to Killer Joe's Chicago homecoming was predictable. No sooner had the revival production--again directed by Milam, and now featuring Andrew Hawkes and Amy Landecker with Nelson the only vestige of the original cast--opened in the venerable playhouse that launched the careers of David Mamet and Steppenwolf, when the debate recommenced. Hedy Weiss again bemoaned the play's "wholesale depravity." Jack Helbig huffed, "It's crap and mean-spirited crap at that." And British-born Chris Jones, reviewing for the Tribune, likened it to "the guilty consumption of trash fiction . . . more morally complex than you first realize."
But is this the same show playing on Halsted Street as in Evanston? Or has it grown over the years along with its progenitors? "We cut nearly twenty pages from the script for Edinburgh. This leanness allowed us to discover nuances and grace-notes of anger and buried frustration--and humor, too, because people must find humor or die," says director Milam. "[The current] Killer Joe is no less funny, but we've found a darkness--corners, and shadows, and corridors--underneath the words. Each actor brings something different to it, and this offers all of us an opportunity for re-investigation." He shrugs, "I'm still learning about the play."
In our capricious world, many a superficially simple work of art may prove to have a depth and complexity beyond even its author's vision. (What critics, upon first viewing Hamlet or Tartuffe, would likely have foreseen so long a run for these popular entertainments?) Killer Joe's journey appears far from over, and who knows what lies ahead for a play that continues to shock and astonish with each new triumph?