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Killing Mama

David C. Mitchell and Jessica Wegryzn in the American Repertory Theater of WNY production of Tracy Letts's "Killer Joe."

Killer Joe at American Repertory Theater of WNY

Buffalo has yet to see Tracy Letts’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning play, August: Osage County, but we continue to flirt with his work. This season we’ve seen Superior Donuts at Road Less Traveled Theatre, a play about a man holding on to a donut shop in a declining Chicago neighborhood. Now, American Repertory Theater of WNY is opening his very first play, Killer Joe, the story of a family that seeks to resolve its debt problems by hiring a hit man to kill Mom for the life insurance money.

Letts began his career as a Chicago actor, but in 1993 he made his mark as a playwright with Killer Joe. The play ignited tremendous praise and attention for its acerbic wit, its vivid characters, and its graphic use of violence and full-frontal nudity. Killer Joe went on to productions in the United Kingdom and in New York—twice. Of its second New York incarnation, Ben Brantley of the New York Times opined “Killer Joe has the enjoyable hairpin turns of the standard mystery thriller, but it’s the skewed, shifting relationships that keep you hooked.” Amanda Plummer was featured in that production.

Set in a Texas trailer camp, the play follows Ansel Smith, his slatternly wife, Sharla, and his daughter, Dottie. This crew conspires to murder Ansel’s ex-wife, and the mother of Dottie and Chris, who has fallen behind in his payments to murderous creditors—a complication of his career as an incompetent drug dealer.

This set-up leads us to Killer Joe Cooper. In this upside-down world, the family is a mess, but the hired assassin is organized, well-mannered, and neat. The family may be broke, but gentlemanly Joe is willing to accept virginal Dottie as a retainer for his services. Of course, bumping off mother inevitably turns out to be more complicated than anyone intended, giving the play enough double-crossing twists and turns to earn Tracy Letts the admiration of critics and audiences alike with his first play.

August: Osage County was successful enough to go through cast changes on Broadway and to tour, but with a sprawling story and cast of 13, it may be a long time before Buffalo sees the tale of a dysfunctional family dealing with the disappearance of its patriarch and the spiteful manipulations of their drug-addicted matriarch—if we ever do see the play here. Still, in the current climate of theatrical vigor in this region, among resident subsidized theaters, independent professional theaters, community theaters, and university theaters, we may get to Osage County yet. (We’ll get to see the movie starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, anyway.) For now, however, it will be the compact and climatic thriller, Killer Joe at the capable and daring little ART of WNY.

The production is directed by Matthew LaChiusa and features Patrick Cameron, David C. Mitchell, Stephanie Bax, Jessica Wegryzn, and Scot Kaitanowski. Killer Joe will play through May 5 at Buffalo East, (1410 Main Street). Call 716-634-1102 for tickets.