Chicago Theater Review: LETTIE (Victory Gardens)

by Lawrence Bommer on April 14, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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A CON IS NEVER “EX”

The nickname Lettie comes from the Greek term “Letitia” or “joy.” That’s one of many bleak ironies that stalk the anti-heroine of Boo Killebrew’s survival saga, a world premiere from Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. In 100 troubling minutes, her one-act chronicles the fall and fall of an ex-con and single mother against whom all life’s cards seem simultaneously stacked. Neither a profile in courage nor a case history in victimology or recidivism, Lettie, relentlessly staged by V.G. Artistic Director Chay Yew, sadly delivers one fatal fact: A “fresh start” can dwindle into bad breaks. Re-entry can be rocky.

Caroline Neff, who plays down-and-outers with gritty tenacity and unforced nobility, is the title character. Her lost Lettie, casualty of a lousy Chicago childhood, is returning to supposed freedom after seven years in prison for a drug-related offense. She’s found an entry-level job, sparking and sweating as an apprentice welder. But this is no “Rosie the Riveter” feminist fantasy.

Lettie’s all-consuming passion, her raison d’etre for not succumbing to incarceration, is to regain custody of her now-grown children — the renamed Layla (Krystal Ortiz), a budding actress currently singing in a community production of Annie, and 17-year-old River (Matt Farabee), a surly would-be music producer who’s drawn to drugs just like his biological mom.

Standing in Lettie’s way like the iceberg to the Titanic is her puritanical half-sister Carla (formidable Kirsten Fitzgerald). A fierce “me-firster,” Carla really believes in bootstraps. Then there’s her anti-welfare, “sink or swim” hubbie Frank (Ryan Kitley). This custodial couple is not into second chances. Lettie’s only sympathetic ally is work colleague Minny (Charin Alavarez): Her combination of tough love and hard-boiled experience sort of helps Lettie to navigate the cold and unwelcoming world of post-prison existence.

Given these colliding characters, Killebrew’s very familiar plot practically writes itself — no good deed going unpunished. Lettie’s temper often gets the worst of her. She’s a casebook example of suffering self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, combating the prejudices, all the harder for being invisible, against poor, uneducated women who did hard time. (Her being white is, of course, no mitigating extenuation whatsoever.)

There are no surprises in Lettie’s predictable pain. The final scene, a bittersweet Norman Rockwell fantasy of a Thanksgiving dinner held in Carla’s squeaky-clean retreat in white-bread Wisconsin, is a promissory note that you know will bounce.

Given six persuasive performances and Stephen Mazurek’s all-telling video projections, much here rings as true as it’s flagrantly recognizable. We feel and know Lettie’s repetitive setbacks, her agonizing and one-sided custody battles, the infuriating malleability of motherhood, and the curse of being more “con” than “ex.” However congealed into gallows humor, you can cut the tension with a knife.

By play’s end a lot of hopelessness goes a little way. If Lettie is intended as a plea for action as much as a play of pity, Killebrew needs to provide the critique of a context. Accuracy is not sufficient to this occasion. Otherwise all we get is one mother’s uncontrolled tailspin into a very hard landing. It sucks to be Lettie but not quite enough to make an audience really angry.

photos by Liz Lauren

Lettie
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave
Tues-Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on May 6, 2018
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit Victory Gardens

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

nikki smith April 15, 2018 at 5:41 pm

wow what a gem of a review. Loved the line “Accuracy is not suffcient to this occasion.”

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