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The road to re-entry after incarceration hits some unexpected curves in Lettie, a well-meaning but overly earnest character study now onstage at People’s Light. Playwright Boo Killebrew exhibits undeniable compassion for the flawed family at the center of the action, but she waffles in establishing firm dramatic stakes.
That’s not for want of opportunity. There is hardly a hot-button topic that this play, which had its world premiere at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater in 2018, doesn’t have its finger on. Lettie considers obliquely the prison industrial complex, the fractured relationship between parents and children, and the lingering mistrust and resentment that accompany struggles with addiction. Yet rather than mine these topics for their genuine dramatic value, Killebrew skims the surface, resulting in something that feels closer to a television movie of the week than a tense stage drama.
The main character herself offers plenty of avenues for conflict and contradiction. Lettie (Danielle Skraastad) leaves prison with a blue-sky vision for the future. She plans to excel in her manual training course, secure an apartment of her own, and reunite with her teenage children, River (Jacob Orr) and Layla (Bryanna Martinez-Jimenez). Even as predictable roadblocks emerge, she maintains a somewhat sunny attitude, and she seems largely oblivious to the pain she’s caused her kids, who live with her sister Carla (Teri Lamm) and her stern husband Frank (Kevin Bergen).
Killebrew does her best work in establishing the fraught dynamic between Lettie and the children who have largely been raised with their biological mother as an idea, rather than a person. Layla attempts to smooth the waters, warmly embracing Lettie and involving her in her life. (She’s starring in a school production of Annie, a musical about an orphan longing for her absent parents—a metaphor too on the nose.) River remains hesitant—with good reason, we later learn.
But the various struggles that Lettie and her past choices have set in motion tend to fizzle before they can truly move or shock the audience. A suggestion that Frank and Carla may harbor unconscious racism toward Layla, who is Puerto Rican, is dropped without much resolution. Carla’s frustration at being left holding the bag for Lettie’s misdeeds manifest themselves in a deus ex machina monologue near the end of the 90-minute running time, which seemingly exorcises them. Bergen and especially Lamm bring a welcome edge to their roles, but you feel they are tasked with supplying subtext that is not in the writing.
A sixth character, Minny (Melanye Finister), who shares in the battle to establish a decent life post-prison, seems to exist only as a sounding board for Lettie. The little we learn about her background or her motives serves only to move onto the next steps of her own journey.
The acting cannot be faulted for the play’s deficits. Skraastad chips away at Lettie’s tough edges, gradually showing how struggles with sobriety, rejection from her family, and a general sense of rootlessness in the world weigh on her soul. She is the rare actor who inhabits the skin of a working-class actor without an ounce of condescension. Skraastad and Lamm establish a tense sisterly relationship that’s equally funny and unnerving.
Although Orr and Martinez-Jimenez are too old to convincingly pass as teenagers, both are discoveries, revealing in different ways the impact of their mother’s long absence on their lives. A nervy scene between Orr and Skraastad, full of recrimination and resentment at the weight a child was forced to carry by his mother, is a high point.
An uneven production
But the production itself, directed by Abigail Adams, leaves something to be desired. A turntable set would be preferable to demarcate the distinct spheres in Lettie’s world—the halfway house where she and Minny live, the locker room of the welding factory where she toils, Frank and Carla’s modest but warm suburban home—but Daniel Zimmerman’s carpeted set makes it seem like all the action occurs in one living room. Long scene changes zap any sense of forward momentum, and cheesy incidental music by Lee Kinney is at odds with the grim reality of the story. Only the convincingly drab costumes by Marla J. Jurglanis are of a piece with the world of the play.
There is a compelling story to tell here, but neither the play or the production entirely stick the landing. In that sense, Lettie is a letdown.
What, When, Where
Lettie. By Boo Killebrew, directed by Abigail Adams. Through July 13, 2023, at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
People’s Light is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be open-captioned performances from July 7 through July 13, and smart-caption glasses are available to reserve for all performances with advanced notice. There will be a relaxed performance on Friday, July 7, at 7:30pm, and an audio-described performance on Sunday, July 9, at 7:30pm.
Masks are not required.
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