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Sometimes the phrase black comedy is used to describe a play that's sorta funny underneath it all — once you stop to think about it — beyond its dire circumstances. Not so at the Williamston Theatre, where The Smell of the Kill inspires peals of laughter because lives are on the line. Under the direction of Kristine Thatcher, this production is a wonder of a comedy that's also chillingly relatable.

The 90-minute play takes place in a suburban Chicago kitchen, itself a technical marvel. Not only are features like running water and working electrical outlets on display, but it was difficult to tell where set and lighting designer Daniel C. Walker's work ended and Lynn Lammers's scores of props began. No bones about it, this kitchen is better appointed, and possibly more livable, than my own. Remarkable sound design by Ken Faulk used numerous applications of offstage voices and noises that gave a clear impression of the house beyond what was visible. Stage manager Erin K. Snyder has her work cut out for her, gamely recreating the managed chaos of a real home.

What happens in this kitchen is less conventional than its blond wood cabinets and black appliances. Cleaning up after their monthly group dinner, wives Debra (Laura Croff), Molly (Teri Clark Linden), and Nicky (Emily Sutton-Smith) nail the closeness sans affection befitting the spouses of longtime friends. The women have different lives: one a high-ranking working mother, one a career woman turned stay-at-home mom, and one a stay-at-home aspiring mother who admits to doing nothing. Their husbands are different, too: Debra's is handsy, Molly's pushes the line between attentive and controlling, and Nicky's was just indicted for a white-collar crime. Michele Lowe's script expertly sets the events of the evening in motion: before we know it, the women are in danger of becoming widows, which they approach as a moral dilemma instead of an emergency. The men are heard but never seen; the abstract sense of them makes their potential deaths funny instead of tragic. Even Karen Kangas-Preston's costume design is in on the joke, introducing hunting gear into the scene.

Crowning the tight script and technical successes are three flawless performances. As Nicky, the most recently and publicly humiliated, Sutton-Smith's rage is fearfully composed and hilariously steely. Linden's Molly is a study in contrasts: decidedly simple in logic and values, she's sometimes a step behind, at others more daring than the rest. Debra takes the longest to come into her own, but Croff plays the necessary ethical foil without being a stick in the mud. Balancing comic timing with excellent character work, Thatcher makes sure each character is sympathetic; the audience is completely on the women's side. There is nothing these three can't do — including sterling physical comedy.

The trifecta of The Smell of the Kill is in first creating a world so rich and real, then making sense of the deplorable things that happen in it, and finally making us actually laugh at them. In fact, my only minor disappointment was that the play ended so quickly, it didn't feel like the story was over. The production's broad, albeit disturbing, appeal owes much to the stellar work by all involved, although the show's simply raucous fun also plays a major part. Here's proof positive that excellent theater can take the most surprising forms.


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