Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.
Pictured (l-r): Charin Alvarez and Caroline Neff. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Elizabeth Ellis
Some people are born lucky, and reap the benefits of advantages, like an intact family and financial security, from the very beginning of their existence through the rest of their lives. Others, despite working hard to overcome multiple strikes against them, cannot seem to catch a break, and find themselves stuck in a cycle of poverty, dead-end jobs, drug use, and recidivism. Such is the case with Lettie, the protagonist in Boo Killebrew’s haunting and affecting tale of movement towards redemption at Victory Gardens Theater. Directed with unflinching honesty by Chay Yew, LETTIE feels like a new story, but the elements present as fresh and familiar to anyone who faces the monumental and unfamiliar task of making good life choices.
Lettie (the raw and edgy Caroline Neff) has recently been released from Chicago’s Logan Correctional Center after serving a seven-year sentence for drug offenses. Her first step toward re-entering society brings her to Spring House, a halfway house for ex-convicts, where she starts a tentative friendship with convicted murderer Minnie (the touching and funny Charin Alvarez). Minnie cautions Lettie that despite her best efforts, turning over a new leaf will be nowhere as easy as it appears.
Lettie engages in a tense reunion with her sister Carla (the powerful yet vulnerable Kirsten Fitzgerald). Aside from sharing a family connection, Lettie and Carla are complete opposites, with Carla having a stable home life and a job at an IHOP. Lettie gave temporary guardianship of her two now-teenaged children, River and Layla (Matt Farabee and Krystal Ortiz, both pitch-perfect teens), to Carla and her husband Frank (the nuanced Ryan Kitley), who cannot have children of their own. With gritty determination, Lettie affirms to Carla that she is going to turn her life around for good. She’s enrolled in a job training program to learn to be a welder, and desperately wants to find a home of her own so she can finally be a mother to her children. This declaration rattles Carla to her core — though she has probably known at some level that this day would eventually come, she and her husband have happily treated Layla and River as their own children.
Lettie’s attempts to improve her circumstances do not follow a direct route — she does not fulfill the welder coursework and practical applications, and without structure, falls into aimlessness. As Lettie tries to create her life, she discovers that she has no marketable skills, no real education, and no clue how to operate outside of the constraints of a total institution. She also feels the negative effect of her return in her family’s life. Frank resents that Lettie, with her criminal background, can receive free job training, while his job may be in jeopardy. Carla, who has wanted children so desperately, fights to maintain her status quo as a mother. Layla and River don’t know how to handle this person, insinuating herself into their lives, who they barely know and remember. In the strained final tableau,the family, seated around a Thanksgiving meal, sadly engage in stilted, holiday-appropriate discussion, demonstrating how easy it is to fall into old patterns rather than take the chance to move forward and make better, healthier choices.
Through a simple application of heavy black eyeliner, pulled back curls, and dull clothing, Caroline Neff personifies the lost woman to whom life has dealt many hard, cruel blows. She pivots masterfully between tough and posturing, hopeful and curious, and dissolving into tears. Her heartbreaking performance anchors the play. Kirsten Fitzgerald’s Carla has the initial pleasant appearance of your favorite server, which belies her steely determination to keep River and Layla’s lives stable. Frank, a casual racist and limited thinker, could easily become a one-dimensional character, but in Ryan Kitley’s capable hands, he easily alternates between annoying and sympathetic. Matt Farabee’s excellent River is every moody teenage boy who aspires for a career in music, and Krystal Ortiz brings sweet enthusiasm to her sunny Layla. Charin Alvarez adds just a touch of menace to her rough yet hopeful Minnie, rendering her absolutely authentic.
Chay Yew keeps the dialogue overlapping and truthful, and allows the silences to contribute as much to the story as the actors do. Boo Killebrew’s play does not offer much promise for Lettie’s future, and gradually reveals instance after instance (teen pregnancy, drug use, unstable relationships) that contribute to Lettie’s consistent challenges. Andrew Boyce’s drab brick set, paired with Stephan Mazurek’s bleak but gorgeous projections of Chicago streets and homes, creates a harsh yet beautiful backdrop where both struggles and successes are found.
LETTIE isn’t a piece where you feel uplifted at the end of the show, but that wistful feeling contributes to the play’s truthfulness. The wonderfully honest performances from the cast and Neff’s achingly heartfelt portrayal make this a show that will invite many discussions about how to bring those living on the edge to lives of harmony and success.
LETTIE runs through May 6th. For more information visit victorygardens.org.