In the past few years, Victory Gardens’ productions have, in my mind, become synonymous with consistency. Whenever I attend a show there, I go in confident that whatever I will see is bound to be good--their company produces shows with persistently great sets, talented actors, interesting scripts, etc. While their latest foray, playwright Boo Killebrew’s Lettie, did not disappoint, it also failed to dazzle. The well-written play succeeds in its attempts to present an array of characters which we can sympathize with, even as they come from extremely different points of views, but the somewhat choppy narrative and its focus on white woman (when rates of incarcerated women of color are much higher) diminished the play’s overall effect.
The story follows Lettie (Caroline Neff), a formerly incarcerated mother of two, as she gets released from prison and begins attempting to re-acclimate into society. Struggling to regain her footing in a trouble system which provides little (if any) support, Lettie’s quest for a stable life is further hindered by her family drama; her half-sister Carla (Kirsten Fitzgerald) has been caring for her now teenage-aged children, and both Carla and her husband Frank (Ryan Kitley) are shook by Lettie’s reappearance. They hadn’t expected Lettie to return, as Carla notes in the opening scene, “for two or three years.”
While Lettie desperately tries to become a part of her children’s lives again, her high school- age kids River (Matt Farabee) and Layla (Krystal Ortiz) struggle to cope with their mom’s homecoming, as memories of their turbulent childhood with a drug-addicted mother plague their relationship with her. It is in this thread that the play is most moving, as every individual’s struggle is pronounced and sympathetic. We feel for Lettie--the woman desperate for another chance--but we also understand her children and half-sister’s reluctance, for the tremendous suffering caused by Lettie’s past decisions.
The supporting cast does a tremendous job of infusing their portrayals with a sense of reality, but Neff overshadows everyone with the performance of a lifetime. Neff, like Victory Gardens, is consistently great, but the heartbreak in her moving performance is palpable. Even her stunning take on this role, though, fails to elevate this show from good to stellar. It’s something within the narrative itself--the choppy scene transitions, the barebones, lifeless set, the somewhat overly forced awkwardness between the characters.
Overall, Lettie offers a slew of great performances and a interesting take on a topic ripe for discussion and social change. With some slight tweaks to the material and to the white-driven narrative, Lettie could elevate its status from good to great.
Review by Emily Schmidt
Lettie continues at Victory Gardens Theater through May 6. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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