BWW Review: LETTIE at Victory Gardens Theater
Boo Killebrew's world premiere play LETTIE is profoundly heartbreaking and brilliantly conceived. Under the direction of Artistic Director Chay Yew, the production devastatingly unfolds the narrative of the titular working class ex-convict Lettie. Both Killebrew's masterful, raw writing and Yew's superlative ensemble--with Caroline Neff in the title role and doing some of the best work so far of her career--bring immense pathos and a swirl of shifting emotions upon the audience.
In the early moments of LETTIE, Killebrew's script--and Neff's performance--have us aching for her character. Freshly released back into the universe of Chicago's working class after seven years in prison, Lettie tries to piece her life back together. She's living at Spring House, a halfway house for fellow ex-cons, and she's enrolled in a training program to become a welder. Above all, though, Lettie longs to reunite with her two teenage children, River (Matt Farabee) and Layla (Krystal Ortiz). Though she may be free of the prison's walls, Lettie soon realizes that in her life she has little freedom.
In constructing LETTIE's narrative, Killebrew beautifully captures the arch of a character for whom we simultaneously sympathize and who can also at times be deeply frustrating. When Lettie comes to blows with her sister Carla (a powerful and touching Kristen Fitzgerald) over her fervent need to reconnect with her children, we see her maternal instincts come roaring to life. As the play unfolds, though, Killebrew reveals to us just how much pain Lettie has inflicted upon her children. And when we finally learn just how much Lettie's life choices--or lack thereof--are a result of dire, devastating circumstances and an unbearably tortured, awful childhood, our hearts break anew. It is to Killebrew's credit that she has us hold onto so many of these conflicting emotions and reactions throughout the play. Just as Lettie is a rightfully tortured character, so too does Killebrew reveal all the complicated layers of her situation.
Neff further ignites all the shades of grey within her character in a commanding performance. Her Lettie has a fierce resolve to become a better mother and repair her relationship with her children, yet she struggles mightily with her training program. Neff's emotional performance can also pivot instantly, from sharp and angry to utterly vulnerable and open. She takes us on a terrifying, emotional journey right alongside Lettie.
Neff is also in stellar company. As fellow ex-convict and welder Minny, Charin Alvarez finds a great deal of surprising humor in her role. Alvarez has a presence that is both grounded and quietly vulnerable, especially as her character delivers some harsh truths to Lettie. As Layla, Ortiz infuses some much needed light into this necessarily dark play. Ortiz has a levity and an earnestness to her performance that serves the role so well. As Lettie's oldest child, River, however, Farrabee brings a more brooding, contemplative presence. In his delivery, Farrabee allows us to see just how much River has been affected by the mistakes his mother has made. As Carla's husband, Frank, Ryan Kitley strikes the balance between presenting a stern disposition towards Lettie and allowing us to see the genuine affection he feels for her children. As Carla, Fitzgerald demonstrates how torn her character is between her desire to help out Lettie and her strong instinct to protect Lettie's children, whom she has come to love as her own.
Andrew Boyce's stark, modern set design allows the actors to navigate through a range of spaces, while Stephan Maruzek's projections display iconic Chicago images and set a dark tone that mirrors the devastation in the play. Melissa Ng's costume designs gracefully reflect the working class world that Lettie navigates, and Lee Fiskness's lighting design adds to the emotional tension.
LETTIE is consistently captivating and powerfully heartbreaking. The play opens up a window into the devastating experience of its main character. And though we in the audience certainly are not meant to agree with most of Lettie's life choices, Killebrew never loses sight of the need for us to sympathize with her--and Neff's performance brings all of that complexity and heartache to life.
Photo by Liz Lauren