The problem with “issue” plays is that, well, they’re almost always about issues, not people. And while a certain amount of theatrical problem-solving might be able to turn that minus into a plus, it’s something that rarely happens—possibly because bold theatricality is considered to be the same thing as “risk,” and there’s nothing that terrifies artistic administrators more than actual risk.
Writing a realist play about social issues can be tough; characters become mouthpieces, stories become jeremiads, and complexity gets flattened out into boring old rhetoric. The world’s too full of all that stuff as is—the last thing we need is a night at the theater turning into yet another Facebook screed, tweetstorm or—shudder—thinkpiece.
All of this is to say that what playwright Boo Killebrew has done with her new play Lettie, directed here by Chay Yew, is a minor miracle. It’s an issue play that lets the issues inform the drama instead of just lecturing it—that puts the story and the characters first and lets the politics seep in by osmosis.
The primary issue that Killebrew tackles here is the plight of the recent parolee. The play begins with Lettie (the superb Caroline Neff), a white woman in her mid-thirties, being released from prison after seven years. (We later learn she was there for drug trafficking, the result of both addiction and a spectacularly crappy boyfriend.) She’s stationed in a halfway house and put into a training program that teaches her to weld and makes vague promises of a future job.
Lettie has two children, now teenagers, who’ve been in the care of her sister Carla (Kirsten Fitzgerald, a freaking powerhouse) and Carla’s husband, Frank (Ryan Kitley). Lettie hasn’t seen her kids for years and is eager to reconnect with them, but Carla and Frank are wary. As upstanding Christians (read: slightly insufferable tightasses) and as people who had to clean up Lettie’s mess when she was in the throes of addiction, they don’t yet trust Lettie’s competence as a mother. Plus, they honestly like having kids.
Lettie’s daughter Layla (Krystal Ortiz) is a bubbly, 14-year-old drama queen and (almost) straight-A student, while her 17-year-old son River (the seemingly ageless Matt Farabee) is a moody record collector and aspiring producer. Layla is eager to learn more about her mom, while River treats her like a strange dog that might bite at any moment. He’s old enough to remember Lettie the way she was, and has no desire to make up and play house.
Lettie makes a friend at her work—well, a friend turned enemy turned friend again—in Minny (Charin Alvarez), a formerly incarcerated Latina who’s been out of prison for longer but barely has her life any more together. The two are walking along the same trembling tightrope—one false step and it could be back to prison or be pushed out on the street. Of course, as Minny loves to remind her, Lettie does have a leg up on account of her being white.
Yew directs the play with precision, using the light design (by Lee Fiskness) to create a series of squares and rectangles across the stage, evoking the rigid geometry of the cell block. And while the “time’s passing” video projections (designed by Stephan Mazurek) feel a bit lazy, they’re of a piece with the unadorned brick walls that surround a white, rectangular prison yard of a playing space (set by Andrew Boyce).
Despite a number of climactic shouting matches that really make use of a dynamite cast, Killebrew is not afraid to let the play be quiet and unhurried. She’s also got no problem with loose ends and contradictions—you know, the kinds of things that life is full of. Her script doesn’tt dot its i’s and cross its t’s it’s more interested in a pointillistic approach—allowing details and moments to accumulate until the larger picture, hazy as it is, reveals itself.
Victory Gardens Theater. By Boo Killebrew. Directed by Chay Yew. With Caroline Neff, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Charin Alvarez, Matt Farabee, Ryan Kitley, Krystal Ortiz. Running time: 1hr 30minso intermission.