“Lettie,” a family drama about a woman emerging from prison and addiction with a desire to reclaim the teenage kids who have barely seen her in seven years, is that rare play that manages to be both pessimistic and hopeful, with a central character simultaneously deeply sympathetic and infuriating. Playwright Boo Killebrew, currently a writer on Netflix’s “Longmire,” provides a gorgeously lucid view of a genuine, flawed person trying really hard, or at least thinking she is, whose life trajectory twists based on evolving social forces and family dynamics, combined with an unchanging and problematic personality.
Receiving its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater under the sharply elegant direction of the theater’s artistic director Chay Yew, “Lettie” is one of those over-the-top superb Chicago theatrical experiences that seems to spring up with little warning every so often — think Tony winners “August: Osage County” and “The Humans” — filled with a complete array of world-class performances and capturing an essential expression of contemporary American life.
The title character –- portrayed by an extraordinary Carolyn Neff (“Airline Highway”) so that we always know when Lettie’s strength masks insecurity — has just been released from prison and lives in a halfway house in the Chicago area. Determined to get a second chance at life, she is training to be a welder as part of her re-entry program, not exactly her dream but a means to the end she most wants: to get a job, an apartment and finally be a family with her two kids. They’ve been living in the suburbs with Lettie’s older half-sister Carla (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and her husband Frank (Ryan Kitley), both ideally played as pillars of working-class exhaustion stressed to its limits but held together in part by faith.
Lettie feels capable of handling it all and resents Carla’s doubts. But sobriety doesn’t mean that Lettie has the life skills she needs to make it. Perhaps if she’d actually listen to the people trying to help her — people such as fellow ex-con Minny (an un-improvable Charin Alvarez) — she could avoid burning herself while training. Her stubborn streak of resistance and lack of discipline pale against her inability to view the situation fairly from others’ perspectives. To Lettie, Carla was just taking care of her kids until she got her act together. For Carla, it was a full decade before the prison years that she and the less patient, currently unemployed Frank had to sacrifice to ensure Lettie’s kids were safe and cared for.
Killebrew knows exactly when to expose a long-held resentment or dark family secret to spin or replenish our sympathies. Impressively, she has written two fully realized teenage characters who are complex portraits of innocence and cynicism. As 14-year-old Layla, Krystal Ortiz captures a teenager’s desperation to understand her identity, particularly since she lists her race as “Other.” She is optimistically willing to go along with anything Lettie proposes. And playing her 17-year-old half-brother River, Matt Farabee is remarkable as the damaged but knowing teen who remembers being burned (literally) enough to distrust, but not completely dismiss, his mother’s claim to be a new person.
Yew’s impeccable production has a clean, simple theatricality. He and set designer Andrew Boyce choose a bare set with a standing door and a few pieces of mobile furniture, and get particular help from Stephan Mazurek’s black-and-white projections, which are naturalistic and highly expressive without being too literal.
Perhaps the most important and surprising quality here is Killebrew’s ability to find the humor as well as the underlying love in her characters. Lettie, in Neff’s multi-faceted performance, is easy to root for in part because ,once she’s comfortable with someone, her sarcasm becomes charming. We end up with a deeply moving depiction of a world without villains, where we each cause damage we don’t intend in search of dreams we’re unlikely to fulfill. But as long as one can be thankful for small pleasures — like a peaceful family dinner or an amusing story over frozen pizza — it’s not depressing. It’s just real, and requires us to rethink what a genuine happy ending looks like.