Review: Killer Joe @ The Ringwald Theatre

Review: Killer Joe @ The Ringwald Theatre

“Killer Joe”
Who Wants Cake?
The Ringwald Theatre, Ferndale
Through April 27, 2009

alt textKiller Joe (Joel Mitchell) looms over timid and innocent
Dottie Smith (Christa Coulter) in the Who Wants Cake?
production of “Killer Joe” at the Ringwald Theatre.

Sitting through “Killer Joe,” by Tracy Letts, is like watching your worst nightmare at gunpoint—except you are holding the gun. This vulgar and uncomfortably well-acted show is just suspenseful enough to keep you in your seat until the end. But you will squirm while you sit. Unlike the other two Who Wants Cake? productions I’ve reviewed, this one is not wacky and over the top; it’s over-the-top creepy.

Chris Smith (Jon Ager) has gotten himself into about $6,000 worth of trouble with a vicious local guy, who is very anxious to have his money back. When Chris’ mother Adele steals and sells the drugs Chris was going to use to pay the guy off, Chris decides she would be worth more dead than alive: Adele has a $50,000 life insurance policy that lists Chris’ malleable little sister Dottie (Christa Coulter) as the sole beneficiary. Conveniently, Chris has also just heard about a detective on the police force, who has a side-job as an assassin and would kill his mother for about half of the policy amount. Even after payment and splitting the remainder four ways — between Chris, Dottie, their father Ansel (Jamie Richards) and their stepmother Sharla (Jamie Warrow) — Chris could pay off his debt and get out of trouble. But Killer Joe (Joel Mitchell) won’t work without advanced payment — unless they can agree upon a suitable retainer. And from there, the spoilers entangle themselves into a plot of indescribable mayhem.

I’m not sure who to hold accountable for the creepiness of “Killer Joe.” Tracy Letts wrote a gruesome script, for which director Joe Plambeck had a cohesively grisly vision, which the actors performed with eerie realism. The gun shots and the smoke I could handle, but a warning that was missing from the pre-show announcements was “uncomfortably awkward sexual moments that will make your skin crawl.” One small, half-consenting step away from rape, the scene that closes the first act could almost make you run back to your car at intermission. But, like the clichéd train wreck you can’t bear to wrench your eyes from, the uncertainty of how this disaster could possibly end, may keep you in your seat — or standing in front of it, stretching the leg muscles you unconsciously tensed all through the first half.

The only unthreatening part of this show is its set, designed by Michelle Becker. Its grungy, kitsch-strewn walls and surfaces and shabby, deteriorating or makeshift furniture made for a convincing, backwoods trailer in the South. Sound effects of snarling dogs and thunder storms provided ominous overtones, understatedly boding the uncomfortable awkwardness to come. Even the lighting helped to set the mood, illuminating even the darkest scenes just enough for us to see more than we could possibly want to. Everything came together artfully to create a consistently disturbing effect. And it worked. Well.

This is not necessarily a show I’d recommend taking your parents to (as I did), but if you and your friends like that antsy feeling that makes you want to run screaming for the characters’ sake, the Ringwald has a winner for you. The cast plays intense, messed up characters so fantastically that, if you can sit through the whole thing, your subsequent nightmares will definitely be realistic.

“Killer Joe” runs April 3 – 27 at the Ringwald Theatre at 22742 Woodward Ave in Ferndale. Tickets range from $10 – $20. Shows are Friday through Monday at various times available on their website: