Self Defense, or Death of Some Salesmen

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

at Steppenwolf

Often independent and enterprising, serial killers are the evil cousins of American icons like the cowboy and the entrepreneur. And we’re fascinated by them. Are they brilliant but crazy? Genetic anomalies? Mere sexual perverts? Products of an abusive family or an oppressive society? We want to be reassured that evil on this scale isn’t normal–that instead something has gone horribly wrong.

A serial killer is at the heart of Carson Kreitzer’s Self Defense, or Death of Some Salesmen, first produced in 2001 and now being staged by Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. Jolene Palmer is a slightly fictionalized version of Aileen Wuornos, subject of the 2003 film Monster. Wuornos killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990 and was executed for her crimes in 2002. Where Monster paints a psychological portrait of her, showing how a mixture of bravado, fear, anger, neediness, and denial led her to kill, Self Defense offers intellectual arguments about cultural attitudes toward perpetrators and victims. Female killers are seen to be farther outside normal boundaries than male murderers, and prostitute victims are thought to be “asking for it.” Fear of becoming a victim is less widespread if someone is murdering hookers, but when middle-aged white guys are turning up dead, concern is more general. Kreitzer raises all these issues and more but without coming to any conclusions. Despite some excellent performances, ultimately the play is a disappointment.

Kreitzer focuses on the time between Jolene’s first murder and her death by lethal injection, including her trial and a visit from some angels after her death. Jolene’s story gets told in confusing flashbacks, flash-forwards, and overlapping scenes. At the same time we see bits of other, related incidents: how prostitutes are treated by local law enforcement, how the police go about investigating the murders, the coroner’s reaction when she examines the bodies of the johns or of other prostitutes, the conversations between various hangers-on who hope to gain notoriety or money or some other advantage. More important are the exchanges between Jolene and her lover and Jolene and her lawyers. Each of the 23 characters besides Jolene (all played by an ensemble of seven) seems to offer a different reason for why she killed.

Kreitzer sketches out Jolene’s backstory over the course of the play. Abused by her grandparents, who raised her, she had a child at 14 who was adopted–Kreitzer implies against Jolene’s will. A heavy drinker, she eventually finds herself working the Florida highways as a prostitute. The play tries to make the relationship between Jolene and Lu (based on Wuornos’s lover, Tyria Moore) the story’s emotional center–and Jolene’s love is the most poignant and human part of her story. In the end Lu betrays Jolene, extracting a confession that she gives to the police, essentially sending Jolene to her death.

This betrayal, which resonates so strongly in Monster, isn’t nearly as tragic in Self Defense, probably because, despite the play’s many monologues, Kreitzer really isn’t that interested in Jolene’s inner life. She doesn’t take much interest in Jolene’s actions either. We never see her kill any of the men, and we see only one of them dead. We learn almost nothing of their histories. Instead of someone who maliciously took lives, Jolene becomes just another victim of the system. Trying to illuminate the complexities of this embodiment of evil, Kreitzer ends up with a mishmash of theories, none more convincing than any other.

According to Kreitzer, society pins some of these theories on Jolene. She’s mentally unstable. She’s not right with God (like Wuornos, Jolene is legally adopted while in jail by an evangelical Christian woman). She’s an unfortunate innocent somehow trapped by a corrupt, uncaring system. She’s a battered woman who killed her oppressors, thereby liberating all of womankind. She’s a man-hating lesbian. She’s a sexual deviant–a lesbian prostitute–so of course she did something horrific and out of character for “normal” women.

Then there are three theories Kreitzer seems to have made up herself–all of them interesting but unlikely. The first is that the jury rejects Jolene’s plea of self-defense because as a prostitute selling her body she has no self left to defend. The second is that, even though she used a gun and killed strangers (most women murder their lovers or children and use other means), Jolene isn’t actually a serial killer because she was likely in danger and didn’t take any trophies from her victims. It’s not clear why the label “serial killer” matters so much to Kreitzer–she never denies that Jolene killed all seven men. Perhaps her point is that the term “serial killer” denies Jolene justice, since it turns her trial into a media circus.

The third theory is that Jolene simply has too much common sense. After years on the streets, she can identify which johns are dangerous, and it just so happens that in one year she runs into seven men who are all rapists and prostitute killers. Kreitzer makes a big show of having one detective realize that the number of prostitute murders has gone down while Jolene is on the loose, which suggests that she’s actually a vigilante. (In real life the number of murdered prostitutes did decline–most likely because men were afraid to pick up hookers once word got out that someone was killing johns.) But Jolene shows so little sense that it’s difficult to imagine her having an abundance of it in this respect.

Intellectual theories in theater are rarely emotionally compelling, especially when there are so many of them in one script. Kreitzer’s play is almost, but not quite, saved by the well-rounded character of Jolene. She keeps insisting that she’s not a theory, that she’s an actual person who committed actual acts, and that by slapping labels on her other people are taking away her personhood. To herself, she’s not a cause or a crazy or a symbol of disturbing social trends. She’s a woman who was alone in the woods with men who tried to hurt her, and she protected herself. Jolene undercuts the very theories Kreitzer is advancing.

Tara Mallen creates a sense of Jolene’s individuality, punching through all the commentary to depict a sullen, ferociously angry woman determined to be important, desperate to be loved. Brandy McClendon as Jolene’s lover also shines, coming across as needy and slyly avaricious. But their fine performances are drowned in talk from the rest of the ensemble, who do only an adequate job of filling out the script’s stereotypical prostitutes, prosecutor, Jesus freak, and so on. Stephanie Nelson’s too clever in-the-round set doesn’t help: the coroner’s table morphs into the bar in a biker hangout, but our views are sometimes blocked. And under Edward Sobel’s often heavy-handed direction, dramatic lighting shifts are accompanied by a flurry of drums, and earnestness leaches out any traces of humor.

Kreitzer means to leave us with more questions than answers, which makes for sometimes provocative social commentary. But in the end Self Defense is too chaotic to be satisfying emotionally or intellectually. Instead of understanding more about the motivations of serial killers and the system that deals with and arguably creates them, we feel we understand less.

When: Through 12/19: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 and 7 PM

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted

Price: $20

Info: 312-335-1650

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.