Marin Theatre Company seems to be entering a new phase of its existence. The theatre's longtime artistic director, Lee Sankowich (whose name is forever linked to seminal productions of the play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), announced his resignation just days before opening the most risky play the normally artistically conservative company has ever produced: Killer Joe, Steppenwolf Theatre Company actor Tracy Letts' decidedly in-your-face black comedy. And Sankowich has directed it to a T, with a dream cast, a gorgeous black-and-white design concept that creates a film-noir feel (set by Giulio Cesare Perrone, costumes by Laura Hazlett), and a knock-down, drag-out fight at the end (sharply choreographed by Christina Traister) that on opening night left some of the actors -- tousled, panting, and dripping with stage blood -- looking shell-shocked at the curtain call.
The play's a shocker, for sure, making Jerry Springer's guests look like a batch of benignly squabbling Mother Teresas. A Texas trailer-trash dad conspires with his dope-dealing adult son to murder his ex-wife for her life insurance money. Dad's brittle current wife is in on the plan. The ex-wife's socially retarded daughter, Dottie -- who lives in the trailer with her dad and stepmother -- is believed to be the policy's beneficiary. But things go comically, horrifically awry, with a hired assassin, the Joe of the title, as the catalyst for an increasingly violent and perverted series of events.
That playwright Letts can keep the balls of humor and horror in the air simultaneously -- that we're laughing even while we're cringing and gasping -- makes this a visceral theatre experience of the highest order. For those who like their theatre strong, not tepid, it's immensely gratifying.
And Sankowich's actors dive in with complex, deeply committed, nuanced performances that serve Letts' purpose by making the appalling characters recognizably, nerve-janglingly human. Impossibly long and lean Stacy Ross, who makes her first swaggering entrance naked from the waist down, is the short-tempered, bossy, cheatin' wife and stepmom; Anna Bullard's shrinking-violet Dottie is heartbreakingly submissive, slump-shouldered, and slightly autistic; Ryan Montgomery is the loose-cannon son who genuinely cares about his victimized sister. Particularly impressive are Cully Fredricksen as a sadistic, deceptively smiling, and coolly menacing murderer, and Howard Swain as the buffoonish, dim-bulb dad whose vague gaze can't help forever wandering back, transfixed, to the TV.
Sankowich hits all the right notes as he negotiates his way through the emotional and stylistic twists and turns of Letts' challenging script. What will the accomplished director tackle next, when he's left Marin Theatre Company behind and ventured off on his own? One can only hope he goes for material as rich and oddly affecting as Letts'.
Killer Joe runs Jan. 12-Feb. 12 at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, Calif. Tickets: (415) 388-5208. Website: www.marintheatre.org.