At the Victory Gardens Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Lettie” is a new play that pulls no punches in its gritty realism. It tells a bleak story about characters struggling to survive in the quagmire of lower class contemporary American society. At about 100 minutes of playing time without an intermission at the Victory Gardens Theater “Lettie” can be a tough sit for the audience. But it’s required viewing for patrons interested in catching the latest work by Boo Killebrew, a young dramatist with an enormous upside. And for featured player Caroline Neff, it’s still another gold star in a career that should be heading toward national recognition.
The title character is a woman just released from prison after serving seven years for drug dealing. Lettie has no skills and no friends, and she has been cut off from her family throughout her imprisonment. The early scenes portray Lettie trying to get a foot on the bottom rung of her post-prison life by learning to become a welder. It’s an unlikely occupation for a woman but apparently many recently freed females are channeled into the profession, because the shortage of welders in American industry. Killebrew conducted many interviews with women like Lettie to put together her convincing saga of characters ensnared in a losing fight.
Lettie makes one friend at the apprenticeship training center, a comical Latina ex convict named Minnie who tries in her clumsy way to serve as Lettie’s mentor and friend. But Lettie is a hard case and she obsesses about finally seeing her two children, River and Layla, now teenagers who have been living with her sister Carla and her husband Frank while Lettie served her time.
Much of the play follows Lettie as she tries to reconnect with her children in the face of opposition from Carla and especially Frank, both ardent Christians with problems of their own on top of their certainty that Lettie isn’t a fit mother. Complicating the stresses of the household Frank has lost his job and flounders in a society that has passed him by in the current age of technology. Layla is a perky 14-year old who wants to be an actress and gets along fine with Lettie. River is a bitter and hostile young man, consumed by frustration and rebellion, and antagonistic toward Lettie for abandoning him during her drug dealing and imprisonment years.
Lettie wants to become a positive force in the lives of her children but she communicates largely in the profanity-drenched argot of the prison, a turnoff for the conservative Carla and Frank who fight fiercely to retain custody of the teenagers. The intensity of the confrontations among the characters ratchets up to a pitch that some viewers may find uncomfortable. The play does have small bits of humor that the opening night audience inflated to loud belly laughs, not so much because of the humor’s quality as to provide an outlet allowing the viewers to employ the occasional jokes as a release from the drama’s searing emotions.
On the surface “Lettie” is about one woman’s struggle to reintegrate herself into society after seven years in prison. Prospective employers are suspicious of such individuals and the ex cons lack the social skills to sell themselves as people worth a second chance. But that state of affairs is an oversimplification. Lettie’s life was a train wreck before she started dealing drugs. She was born to druggie dysfunctional parents and was pregnant at the age of 15. Near the end of the play, Lettie cries that she never had a chance to lead a normal life, born into a hopeless domestic existence without love or understanding or education or friendships. The scars of that brutal childhood shaped the rest of her life. Indeed, it’s possible that her imprisonment gave her the only structure and stability she had ever known.
Caroline Neff’s scorching performance as Lettie is sufficient reason to elevate the play to the essential viewing list. Neff has become the Laurie Metcalf of today’s Chicagoland theater, an actress capable of bringing to the emotional and psychological complexity of any character. Neff articulates Lettie’s hopes and needs in all their desperation and urgency and futility, using a raw language to express a cry from the heart that can overwhelm the viewer.
Neff gets terrific support from the other five members of the ensemble. Matt Farabee’s River is an isolated withdrawn figure until late in the narrative when he explodes into a vitriolic attack at Lettie for abandoning him to her vices when he was young, forcing him into his wasteland of a life. Ryan Kitley is outwardly the most unsympathetic character in the play as Frank, with his short temper buttressed by oppressive religious convictions. But Frank is struggling to keep his place in a society that apparently has no use for his outdated workplace skills and he is terrified. He treats his home as his castle and Lettie is threatening his diminishing patch of authority with her belligerent demands to repossess her children.
Charin Alvarez gives a winning performance as Minnie, who has come to grips with the hopelessness of her existence. Her acceptance of her sorry life can be funny but mostly it is heartbreaking. Kirsten Fitzgerald is first rate, as usual, this time as Carla, the only member of her family owning the dignity and self respect that comes, as an office manager, with having a decent place in society. And Krystal Ortiz is a charming and hopeful Layla, somehow untouched by the blighted atmosphere of her home life.
The play concludes on a superficial note of reconciliation, but it’s really a note of accommodation with failure for a set of dead end lives. Killebrew is too honest a playwright to end her story on an artificially upbeat note, refusing to give the audience any easy out in pondering how the characters will go on with their lives.
The play is beautifully staged by Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew, who melds the individual performances into a seamless ensemble portrait of desperation and discontent. The play’s physical production is enhanced by Stephan Mazurek’s black and white projections of scenes of Chicago, where the play is located. In the filmed images, the buildings always seem slightly shabby and the weather gloomy and wet, a mood relentlessly established by Killebrew’s script. Andrew Boyce designed the set, Melissa Ng the costumes, and Milhail Fiksel the sound plan.
“Lettie” is a play that attempts to tell it like it is in authentically portraying society’s lower class and it deserves a wide audience,. Yes, “Lettie” tells a glum story but Killebrew’s language is spot on, delivered without compromise by Caroline Neff triumphantly leading an impeccable ensemble. All in all, an engrossing evening in the company of lives no member of the audience would want to lead.
The show gets a rating of 3 ½ stars.
“Lettie” runs through May 6 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $56. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. April 2018
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