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‘Lettie’ an extraordinary portrait of second chances amid harsh realities

Caroline Neff (from left), Krystal Ortiz, Matt Farabee, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Ryan Kitley in a scene from "Lettie" at Victory Gardens Theater. | Liz Lauren

Through the story of an ex-con struggling to rebuild her life, playwright Boo Killebrew vividly illustrates the odds weighing heavily against even the most earnestly reformed former inmate. “I’ve made mistakes. But I am not my mistakes,” Lettie (Caroline Neff) tells her family. Maybe so. But post-prison, the world sees Lettie as little but the sum of her past mistakes.

When: Through May 6
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $15-$56
Info: victorygardens.org
Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Directed by Chay Yew and set in Chicago, Killebrew’s moving and sharply witty 90-minute drama goes a long way toward explaining why the recidivism rate is so high amongst ex-cons. The tragedy in “Lettie” is not necessarily that the titular mother was incarcerated. The real tragedy lies in the aftermath of that incarceration: Lettie’s now-teenage children barely recognize her. She’s got virtually no job skills. From dusk until dawn, her schedule is regimented by rules and institutions that seem set up to make her fail. She wants to start over, but the past is like a rusting shackle making movement all but impossible.

Killebrew’s dialogue pops and crackles like a downed livewire as it moves from the welding factory where Lettie is trying to learn a trade to the “Christian household” where her sister Carla (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and her husband Frank (Ryan Kitley) have become “mom” and “dad” to Lettie’s children River (Matt Farabee) and Layla (Krystal Ortiz).

“Lettie” paints an exhausting picture of just how difficult it is to stay on the straight and narrow. It takes Lettie four hours and two busses to get to and from her daily job-training program. Her attempts to mother her two children are met with virulent resistance. Lettie is tough-as-nails as she tries to rebuild her life with minimal resources, but she’s also as vulnerable as a snail without a shell.

Yew’s stellar cast presents a detailed, multi-sided portrait of not just Lettie’s struggles but also those of the family who stepped in and kept the children safe during their mother’s long absence.

Neff is at the core of “Lettie,” and when she speaks, even the tersest, most innocuous words come colored with regret, shame and defiance. In Neff’s endlessly layered depiction, Lettie could be – as her sister and brother-in-law insist – completely unfit to take custody of her children. But Lettie’s ferocious loyalty to her son and daughter is as heartbreaking as it is undeniable.

Charin Alvarez (left) and Caroline Neff in a scene from “Lettie” at Victory Gardens Theater. | Liz Lauren

When Neff and Fitzgerald share the stage, the impact is breathtaking. The opening scene begins as Lettie and Carla lock eyes for the first time since Lettie was released. Nobody says a word, but in that long, searing glance, the two women are crystal clear about the world of hurt and mistrust that lurks between them.

“Lettie” also benefits hugely from the talents of Ortiz and Farabee as Lettie’s children. Ortiz’ Laila is eager, innocent, inquisitive and destined to play the peacemaker in the family. Farabee’s River will be recognizable to anyone who has ever been near a sullen teenage boy.

As Frank, Kitley is easy to hate – at first. Frank is smug , snide and sanctimonious, resentful of the free job training Lettie is getting, fearful that he’s about to lose his own job. It’s a credit to Kitley’s performance that Frank is at once despicably judgmental and utterly understandable. Frank could so easily become a figure of ridicule or a one-note villain; that never happens. Charin Alvarez’s Minnie is just as complicated, a murderer whose crime is almost alarmingly easy to excuse and a quasi-philosopher with a relentlessly clear-eyed view of just how hard “re-entry” is.

It’s not always possible to move forward, Minnie says. Sometimes, the best you can do is to merely “move along.”

“Lettie” is a testimony to second chances, although Killebrew’s final scene is maddeningly ambiguous. Things could be great for Lettie. Or, she could be jobless, homeless and using again. Either way, “Lettie” demands that audiences empathize. Yew’s ensemble will have you doing just that, sometimes with those you’d least expect.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

Kristen Fitzgerald (from left), Ryan Kitley, Caroline Neff, Krystal Ortiz and Matt Farabee in Boo Killebrew’s “Lettie” at Victory Gardens Theater. | Liz Lauren