SELF DEFENSE, or death of some salesmen

Lynne McCollough as Jolene Palmer in
Lynne McCollough as Jolene Palmer in

Carson Kreitzer’s new play SELF DEFENSE, or death of some salesmen is the third in her ‘Women Who Kill’ series. This one is based on the story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who killed seven men and thereby earned herself a dubious honor: designation as The First Female Serial Killer. How did Wuornos justify her crimes? Simple–“self defense.”

It sounds like the punchline to a joke. Women have murdered in the name of self-defense before, but seven times? Over the course of a single year!? Still, Kreitzer creates a compelling case for her heroine, a trusting, needy, and good-natured woman she calls Jolene Palmer.

Palmer’s difficult childhood has left her desperate for love and acceptance, which she seeks from a woman named Lu. Her romantic relationship with Lu, an extremely immature and none-too-bright younger woman, also satisfies Palmer’s maternal instincts (she couldn’t keep her own child when, as a teenager, she was impregnated by her father’s friend). Palmer deludes herself into believing that her devotion is requited and becomes so dedicated to providing for Lu that she begins prostituting herself along I-95.

The play moves like lightning, cutting through a series of brief scenes that illuminate the story in puzzle-piece fashion: a coroner examines a dead body, Palmer talks about her childhood, the police investigate a murder, two exotic dancers relate the strange habits of a particular customer, and so on. We know that Palmer has murdered one of her clients (she admits it to Lu) but Kreitzer leaves a lot to the imagination regarding the circumstances. At first, Self Defense has the feel of a really good Law & Order episode. But eventually more dead men are found, Palmer is caught, and the play becomes more concerned with her personal life and the politics of her situation.

Kreitzer has a statement to make: that women (especially those of lower classes) continue to be abused in society by fathers, lovers, cops, judges, and the press, too. She illustrates the many hypocrisies of the system, pointing out that numerous prostitute murders had gone unnoticed for years while Palmer is martyred for putting up the ultimate defense against the despicable men who tried to harm her. Palmer seems genuinely sorry for what she did; and when, at last, we get a glimpse of how one of those murders unfolded through her harrowing court testimony, she seems completely justified.

McCollough and Mark Zeisler in SELF DEFENSE(Photo: Colin D. Young)
McCollough and Mark Zeisler in SELF DEFENSE
(Photo: Colin D. Young)

But considering that her victims were all killed in less than a year’s time and that Palmer had been prostituting herself for years before she killed anyone, the self-defense argument is a little weak. The play hints at the idea that, far from being crazy, Palmer finally “cracked” in another sense. After so many years of putting up with abuse doled out by the johns and the other men in her life, she was at last asserting herself; it may have been self-defense but she was certainly conscious that, every time a man picked her up, she was in danger. The coroner points out that Palmer’s actions don’t match those of a serial killer, but the fact remains that seven men were murdered. And if Kreitzer is saying that Jolene Palmer is human and deserves compassion despite her crimes, then what about those victims? The murdered men are afforded no sympathy in this play.

Fair enough. Kreitzer seems to understand that there’s only so much ground that can be covered in one play and so she concentrates on saying what she wants to say–and she says it very well. Even those who are not inclined to shed tears for a multiple murderer, regardless of the horrors of her childhood, are bound to take Kreitzer’s point to heart. Her writing is smart and surprisingly funny, and the stylistic presentation works to excellent effect, thanks to director Randy White.

Best of all, the play is blessed with a phenomenal cast. Lynne McCollough is the standout as Jolene Palmer, bringing a great deal to the role–sincerity, intelligence, a hard-edged sensibility, and humor. The chameleonic supporting cast, who make some fantastically quick costume changes to play a variety of roles, deserve mention: Carolyn Baeumler, Carolyn DeMerice, Melle Powers, Dee Pelletier, Stephen Bradbury, Mark Zeisler, and Dan Illian. Lauren Helpern’s set design and Tyler Micoleau’s lighting also merit praise.

At a time when Wuornos, Palmer’s real-life counterpart, has fired her lawyers and requested to be put to death as soon as possible, this play is particularly relevant. If not completely even-handed in its politics, it is dramatically honest. Insightful, engaging, witty, earnest, and given a fine presentation by New Georges and Reverie Productions, SELF DEFENSE is socially-conscious drama at its best.

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