Killer Joe
Artists Repertory Theatre
Through June 16

The old axiom that beer-swilling, twangy talking hicks are always funny is the force behind Killer Joe, a fairly sloppy portrayal of a dysfunctional trailer park family that greets every stereotype ever attached to the redneck race with open arms. There's the slovenly, twice married father, Ansel (Hank Cartwright). There's his much younger, yellow-haired second wife, Sharla (Val Landrum). There's the unemployed moocher son, Chris (Casey D. Brown), and there's the younger daughter, Dottie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), a bright-eyed kid who would be destined for greater things, if only she hadn't been dropped on her head as a youth.

The story that unites these people is almost soap operatic in its silliness. Chris owes money to drug dealers, so he hires Killer Joe (Bruce Burkhartsmeier), a local policeman who also works as a hitman on the side (how ironic!), to kill his real mother, so he and Ansel can collect on her life insurance policy. Naturally, Chris can't afford Joe's services, so he and Joe cut a deal: Joe gets to bang Dottie regularly until Chris collects on the life insurance and pays him.

The cast invests these cardboard characters with as much energy as they can. Particularly fine is the newcomer Ellis, who imbues the unfortunate Dottie with a sense of wide-eyed bewilderment that is both funny and poignant. Burkhartsmeier also fares well as Joe, a man capable of both tenderness and extreme violence, and who blurs the line between the two on a regular basis.

But all the talent in the world can't save Tracy Letts' thoughtless script, which, in addition to relying on the most unoriginal trailer trash cliches for laughs, also humiliates its female characters for no good reason. Killer Joe is a misogynist monster, making the helpless Dottie strip for him in one scene and, later, forcing Sharla to give oral sex to a drumstick. Both moments are disgusting, not because they aren't plausible, but because they exist only to add shock value and not out of necessity to the actual story.

Letts avoids all responsibility for the issues he touches by concluding with a sequence of ludicrous slapstick violence and stupid punchlines. The audience is expected to accept the stream of nauseating degradation as par for the course. Hicks are just fucked up like that, so why try to understand em? It's just fun to watch em fight!