Review: ‘Killer Joe’ at Profiles

You can’t say you weren’t warned. As you walk into Profiles Theatre, it’s hard to miss all the signs announcing that the play Killer Joe includes graphic violence, nudity, gunfire and sexual situations. The theater even suggests that sensitive audience members shouldn’t sit in the front row. And if you’ve ever heard anything about Tracy Letts’ play, you probably have some idea that this is going to be a dark and violent drama.

Despite all those warnings, this production of Killer Joe still manages to shock. It’s a bracing, jolting work of theater, with some moments that may leave you feeling sick. It’s not for the faint of heart. If you can take it, it’s an exciting show that roots around in the depths of human depravity, with a lot of black humor to keep it all from feeling too oppressive.

For those of us who missed Killer Joe when it premiered in Chicago in 1993, this is a great opportunity to catch up on the early writing of Letts, who has since gone on to win the Pulitzer for his family epic August: Osage County (which is coming back as a Broadway in Chicago touring show in early February). Killer Joe seems like the work of a different playwright, with some of the twisted humor and violence of a Coen Brothers low-life crime caper, although there are some parallels between the dysfunctional families in Killer Joe and August.

The small stage at Profiles has the authentic look of a ramshackle home somewhere in Texas, and there’s even a dog barking outside the door during much of the play. Steppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder directs this production of Killer Joe at Profiles, with a strong cast (Darrell W. Cox, Claire Wellin, Somer Benson, Kevin Bigley and Howie Johnson). Although the actors’ Texas accents were a little unsteady, they made these characters feel vivid. Perhaps a little too vivid for some audience members. I suggest following that advice about not sitting in the front row.

Killer Joe continues through Feb. 28 at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. (And also don’t forget to check out Tracy Letts’ work as an actor. He’s great in American Buffalo, which continues through Feb. 14 at Steppenwolf.)

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