Kid Sister belongs to the same dramatic category as Killer Joe by Tracy Letts—that category being White Trash Parade of Horrors. But where Letts’s play has a cruel wit and some imaginative depravity, Will Kern’s lurid new thriller, now onstage at Profiles Theatre, manages to be both unpleasant and unremarkable.
Best known as the author of the cult hit Hellcab, which ran for nine years in Chicago starting in 1992, Kern here supplies not a scrap of memorable dialogue, offers only half-assed attempts at black comedy and social comment, and comes across as a little too desperate to shock, trotting out tried, true, and cheap gambits—coarse language, graphic violence, the suggestion of incest—all without making a discernible point. Kid Sister is seedy, it’s grisly, and then it’s over.
The nastiness centers on a brother and sister living in sweat-soaked squalor in Tampa, Florida. Demi, a fame-hungry 19-year-old, has just had a baby but can’t be bothered to care for little Britney Fergie because she’s too busy smoking pot, munching potato chips, and rhapsodizing about the glamorous new life she believes will inevitably follow her upcoming American Idol audition. She’s got a dumb-as-a-post boyfriend who’s devoted to her, but he’s not the baby’s daddy. That would be her ex-boyfriend and current stalker, Kendall, a meth addict who leaves her dozens of voice mails a day featuring endearments about carving her face up like a jack-o’-lantern.
Fearing for her safety, Demi enlists the help of her much older brother, Cassius, an ex-con trying to get himself back on track but letting his “save-the-world thing” continually draw him into the muck of other people’s problems. Cassius agrees to talk to—i.e., threaten—Kendall on the condition that Demi sign over custody, so Cassius can give Britney a slightly better life than the one she’d have with her selfish, stunted monster of a mother. The idea is just fine with Demi.
Of course violence erupts at the meeting between Cassius and Kendall, and rages pretty steadily until final bows. Bloody deeds trigger bloody deeds—including one involving a giant pair of pruning shears to the neck. These alternate with gratuitous shocks and twists that make Demi look more and more atrocious and Cassius more and more doomed. Despite everything, Demi doggedly holds onto the absurd conviction that she’ll be a star, even gracing us with a tone-deaf rendition of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” and that she and her brother will end up happily together—you know, together together. If all this artless, asinine, sour-tasting stuff is meant to serve any purpose beyond illustrating the importance of impulse control, I don’t know what it is.
Joe Jahraus’s staging consists of 90 minutes of close-range screaming—a shrill parody of the Chicago theatrical tradition of in-your-face performance and in-your-lap performers. Allison Torem has shown promise playing troubled teens in several recent productions around town, but she trades depth for decibels as Demi, delivering a performance that amounts to a sustained temper tantrum. Though probably a conscious choice meant to illustrate Demi’s monstrous childishness, the approach steamrolls any subtleties in its path. Darrell Cox starts out with an air of brooding melancholy as Cassius, the one character for whom Kern shows less than complete contempt, yet before long he’s got nothing to do but rage and roar along with the rest. I kept thinking: I sure hope the cast is drinking plenty of tea with honey to soothe those scream-ravaged throats.