The promo image for Lettie, the new original work by Boo Killebrew now on at Victory Gardens Theater, features Caroline Neff in the title role, wielding a welder’s iron and clad in a protective jumpsuit, gloves and mask. The production centers around Lettie in the first days and weeks after her release from prison. A former junkie trying to get her life back on track, she’s placed in a training program that promises work as a welder once she’s learned the trade. Not her dream job, but honest work if you can get it.
The image, however—and even perhaps the title of the show—is misleading, as this family drama about the second, third, fourth and more chances we get (or don’t) is so much more than a story of Lettie and her welding. (Originally titled Doing It, that conjures a whole other set of preconceived notions.) Perhaps it should’ve been called “Re-Entry” or “Trust Me, Things Will Be Different This Time,” something more representative of the heart of the show.
Set up with a room at a women-only halfway house, Lettie’s freedom isn’t absolute; there are still curfews to obey, rules to follow. Her sister Carla (Kirsten Fitzgerald) comes to visit and Lettie can’t even show her the room she’s settling into, no guests allowed past the common areas. Almost immediately, Lettie asks when she can see “them,” and it’s clear she means her children, now teenagers, who Carla and her husband Frank (Ryan Kitley) took in when Lettie went away.
This, then, is the real core of the play: is Lettie capable of turning over a new leaf, and even if she is, are her kids even interested?
The small cast (aside from the three adults, there’s only the kids (Krystal Ortiz and Matt Farabee) and a fellow former inmate in the welding program (Charin Alvarez) means Killebrew and director Chay Yew can go deep into the story and characters, and while it doesn’t always land (we get it, Carla and Frank maintain a “Christian home”), it does offer some poignant moments and reminders that really, we’re all just fumbling our way through this thing called life.
Lettie hasn’t actually seen River (Farabee), now 17, and Luisa (Ortiz), now 14, in three years—three very formative years in any young person’s life. Carla urges caution in reconnecting with them, but the mama bear in Lettie can’t wait a minute longer than she has to; so of course, the reunions don’t go quite as planned. These aren’t the children she left behind, and as teenagers they’ve got lives and loves and futures ahead of them and baggage behind them, all of which Lettie knows nothing about. Much as she wishes she could, it’s impossible for Lettie to just waltz back in and pick up where they all left off.
The show makes nimble use of its nearly-empty stage, overhead lighting blocking out a room here, a hallway there; the exposed brick on the upstage wall is transformed into whatever space we’re in by way of black and white photos projected onto it. Scene changes are swift, and Neff, who’s onstage the entire time, maintains a fraught, determined energy throughout, carrying the heaviest scenes as well as she does the lighter ones. Comic relief and a bit of wisdom sneak in via Alvarez’s Minny, who’s six months ahead of Lettie on her re-entry journey; and Kitley’s Frank, as the only adult male in the story, balances his fierce conservative convictions with glimpses of vulnerability.
And yet, something about the whole production never quite gels. Lettie’s struggle to get her kids back, to come to terms with who she is—and isn’t—to them, is gripping…at times. The stakes seem inconsistent throughout (one minute, Minny insists Lettie be realistic, the next she’s urging her to think big, to dream of what’s possible), and it’s these conflicting moments that ultimately took me out of the show overall. The final scene, especially, feels like little more than a bow tied quickly and messily just to get us to the curtain call.
There’s a kernel of something meaningful in Lettie, as anyone with parents can attest. The people we come from—the people who raise us or abandon us or smother us or inspire us—are often also the most complicated relationships of our lives. Lettie starts to explore that through its titular character, both her own parentage and her offspring. Welding has little, if anything, to do with it.
Lettie runs through May 6 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $15-56 for shows Tuesday through Sunday, with weekend matinees. Learn more here.