Victory Gardens Theater Company Presents LETTIE Review: Compelling and Moving Storytelling in New World Premiere

Kirsten Fitzgerald, Ryan Kitley, Caroline Neff, Krystal Ortiz, and Matt Farabee in LETTIE Liz Lauren

How can we begin to hope for a woman’s success whose entire life has set them up for failure?

 Killebrew breaks down this question and more in Victory Garden’s world premiere production of Lettie that explores the complexities in the lives of working-class women and mothers, and the challenges within the current structures of reentry programs.

Victory Gardens presents Lettie

 Written by Boo Killebrew and directed by Victory Gardens Artistic Director Chay Yew, this world premiere takes place in Chicago, and follows Lettie (powerfully portrayed by Caroline Neff), a woman in her 30s recently released from seven years in prison. After all this time, she has one wish: to reconnect with her teenage kids, River (Matt Farabee) and Layla (Krystal Ortiz). However, upon re-entering the world, she quickly realizes there may be even more stacked against her than she could have imagined.

Charin Alvarez and Caroline Neff in LETTIE Liz Lauren

Lettie finds herself part of a reentry training program to become an iron welder and while a job is a job, the life is certainly not glamorous. Lettie has trouble finding an apartment with her lack of income and has to stay in Spring House, a halfway house for ex-con women. Finally, she has to confront the reality that her half-sister, Carla (Kirsten Fitzgerald), and brother-in-law, Frank (Ryan Kitley),  have done everything she could to raise River and Layla in a loving home while their mother was away, and perhaps now, they do not want to return to the life they left with Lettie seven years prior.

Honest and Comedic Script

Killebrew’s script, based on real Chicago stories of women in reentry programs, is heartbreaking as she details the challenges of this woman not only post prison, but also before. It is important to realize that these women did not just fall into prison, but there is often an inescapable path towards that conclusion, and Killebrew does an excellent job showcasing that complexity in Lettie’s story, and how with the given circumstances of her mother’s drug addiction, the chances of Lettie falling into the wrong path only increased. The audience witnesses how that past only makes things more difficult for Lettie once she is released and attempts to find some semblance of normalcy. In the end, while it is easy to hope for Lettie’s success in certain moments, there are also certainly points where it is a little questionable.

Neff plays that emotional struggle within Lettie beautifully. It is easy to see the pain from the very beginning of the play when Carla visits her in her new group home. As Carla breaks it to her slowly that not only do they need to tread carefully with introducing Lettie back into the kids’ lives, but that they call her and Frank “mom and dad,” the tension can clearly be felt in the audience between these two expert actresses, and Neff’s complete and utter shock at her new reality cannot be missed.

Kirstin Fitzgerald and Ryan Kitley in LETTIE Liz Lauren
Caroline Neff and Matt Farabee in LETTIE Liz Lauren

While Killebrew masters the pain, she is also careful to include a comedic element, which helps ease the audience into the story - particularly in the scenes shared by Lettie and her new friend, Minny (another female ex-con portrayed by Charin Alvarez). Throughout the play, both of these women attempt to make light of their situations through a dark humor, and while both of their journeys are challenging to watch unfold, Killebrew allows for moments of release through that choice - and some excellent comedic timing on the part of the actors.

Creative Storytelling

So much of Killebrew’s story showcases how events and people are circling around Lettie as she attempts to find some form of control over her new life, and helmed by Yew, the creative team brings that element to life.

Set Designer Andrew Boyce utilizes a simple approach to his design, with specific elements of furniture or fixtures that represent a location – such as a couch to symbolize Lettie’s new home, or a dining room table and door to represent Carla and Frank’s house. Lighting Designer Lee Fiskness dictates where to focus one’s attention within the space, and finally, Projections Designer Stephan Mazurek completes the picture with footage of Chicago in the background that plants the audience in location – such as South Side or West Side.

Caroline Neff, Krystal Ortiz, Matt Farabee, Kirsten Fitzgerald, and Ryan Kitley in LETTIE Liz Lauren

Lettie rarely leaves the stage and instead, all of the design elements circle around her, which heightens the theme of “chaos” within her world. The effect is incredible to watch unfold, and is heightened through other actors entering and leaving the space around her as needed.  Yew’s staging is graceful, and creates a flow for the piece that helps the action move forward at a quick pace.

Powerful storytelling, beautiful staging, and a strong ensemble makes Lettie a must-see, with a story that will stick with you for days.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.

Charin Alvarez and Caroline Neff in LETTIE Liz Lauren

When:

Playing through May 6, 2018

Wednesdays at 7:30pm
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 3:00pm and 7:30pm
Sundays at 3:00pm

Run Time: 90 minutes, without intermission.

Tickets:

For tickets and information, visit the show page on the Victory Gardens website.

Where:

Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
2433 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60614

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago

 

 

About the Author: 

Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters. 

Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.

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