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Theatre Downtown’s ‘Killer Joe’ is an energetic orgy of sex and violence

In its penultimate production, Theatre Downtown takes audiences on the wildest redneck roller coaster in town

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PHOTO BY LOGAN CURRAN
  • PHOTO BY Logan Curran

KILLER JOE

through Nov. 1 | Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave. | 407-841-0083 | theatredowntown.net | $22

Tracy Letts may be best known for writing August: Osage County, but back in 1993, before he was famous, he concocted Killer Joe, an even higher-octane, fewer-holds-barred dramedy about a Texas trailer-trash family who hire a professional killer to murder one of their own. In its penultimate production, Theatre Downtown has captured most of that play’s energy and insanity, thus creating, in a city known for thrill rides, the wildest redneck roller coaster in town.

The Smiths are a mess. Chris, the 22-year-old son, has just been kicked out of his mom’s house for throwing her against a fridge after she stole his cocaine, which she sold in order to fix up her broken Yugo. Desperate for the $6,000 he would have made by selling the drugs, Chris turns to his dad, Ansel, but it’s evident from his spectacularly ramshackle double-wide that neither he nor his current wife, Sharla, have ever seen that amount of moolah. And Chris’ younger, simple-minded sister, Dottie, seems barely able to comprehend anything. One thing they all do seem to grasp, though, is that their lives would be better if Chris and Dottie’s alcoholic mother – Ansel’s ex-wife – were dead and her insurance money in their pockets. Enter Killer Joe Cooper, a police detective who freelances in offings.

“This is not something we can afford to cut corners on,” Chris explains to his dad. But when they discover that Joe won’t take the job unless he gets $25,000 up front, they come up with a comically tragic retainer – and the murder plot is back on, or is it?

Directed by Theatre Downtown artistic director and co-founder Frank Hilgenberg, this production of Killer Joe is slow to build and doesn’t initially crackle with the right mix of comedy and drama. But thanks to a Lone Star State-sized portion of gunfire, stage blood and full frontal nudity, not to mention a steamy Act One ending and a firecracker second act, Letts’ lines land with the proper impact.

Frank Casado as Chris hits most of the right notes, especially in Act Two, while Jason Skinner is even better as Ansel, displaying a sort of understated comical stupidity that eventually gives way to absolute despair. Vera Varlamov has strong moments too as Sharla, but Ashley Wilson, the novice of the group, is a bit out of her depth as Dottie. Still, she displays the requisite beauty and naiveté, not to mention bravery, for the part.

Another star is the set, designed by Mike McRee and dressed to uncultured perfection by Fran Hilgenberg and Marion Marsh. But this production belongs to stage veteran Daniel Cooksley; as Joe, his command of character and space drives the show’s intensity. When the Smiths’ world explodes into an orgy of rape and reprisal, he’s the one who makes it believable.

Another reason to attend is that, in a culturally unhealthy move, Adventist Health System, which owns both Florida Hospital and the Theatre Downtown building, has exercised its right to invoke a six-month termination clause, forcing the theatrical company to find another home after A Christmas Carol in December. So this is, sadly, one of your last chances to support an Orlando artistic tradition, at least in its current incarnation.

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