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Defining the family business

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review

Keep it in the family, they say, but when Sheila (Amanda Quaid) complains that “I just don’t know how much … joy I get from this anymore” and threatens to quit her job as a hired assassin, it not only threatens the family business but also kicks off a fascinating, sometimes horrifying, often funny meditation on the possibility and likelihood of human change.

Mat Smart, a 2004 UC San Diego Playwriting MFA, debuts his new play “Kill Local” through Aug. 27 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. Jackson Gray directs.

(l to r) Amanda Quaid (Sheila) in a scene with Xochitl Romero, who plays Sheila’s squeamish sister, Abi (Photo by Jim Carmody)

“Kill Local” is a shocker from the opening curtain (a plastic shower curtain) where, in an unfinished apartment with more plastic curtains where windows should be, a man named Todd (Matthew Amendt) hangs by his hands from the ceiling while Sheila sits calmly on a nearby folding chair, playing Bejeweled on her cell phone.

When Todd tries to start an (unwelcome) conversation, Sheila pauses the game to call her sister Abi (short for Abigail). Abi (Xochitl Romero) is a computer guru who does all the behind-the-scenes office work like locating the victims, but shies away from the messy business of offing the targets. Sheila is awaiting the signal from mom to do the job. Meanwhile, she asks Abi to order lunch.

Why is Todd a target? He is the proprietor of this intentionally unfinished building, and lives by the dictum: “In capitalism, the question of morality is answered by asking only one thing: Will someone pay for it?”

Sheila puts it this way: “You wanted to wreck people’s lives to make your own life better.”

Todd doesn’t disagree.

“I did want this building to fail,” he says. “I have done this over and over. In 12 states. In five different countries. I have robbed hundreds of people of their life savings. And I have enjoyed doing it. And it sucks.”

What? He now regrets it? Or does he only regret paying for it with his life?

To Sheila’s annoyance, Todd won’t shut up. He tells her about his dad leaving half the construction company to his half-sister, though his dad had never even met the girl (the issue of a long-ago affair). But now Todd wants to say goodbye to her and begs Sheila to dial the number so he can.

These three are all interesting characters, but when she thrashes in, blowsy mom Gloria (Candy Buckley) steals the show as matriarch of the family business. Gloria is matter-of-fact about what she does. Her principle: “You cannot concern yourself with right and wrong. There is only one question: What is the job?”

Then a stranger shows up: a 17-year-old kid named Ami (“with an i, not a y”), who says she comes here from high school when she wants a smoke. Played with teenage bravado by Carolyn Braver, Ami creates a few more complications.

Can a leopard change its spots? Can we talk ourselves out of destructive behaviors we have talked ourselves into?

Gloria claims no morality. She does the job she is paid to do. Sheila tells herself she’s righting supposed wrongs, but right now she just wants to settle down and have three kids like her old high school friend. Abi doesn’t want to be in the business at all. And Ami might not be what she seems.

If you’re on the squeamish side, the violence in “Kill Local” may not be for you. To me it seemed sufficiently cartoonish not to detract from the play’s more intriguing comedic and psychological aspects.

—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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