GETTING OUT, Transient Theatre. Though superficially its story deals with the struggle of ex-jailbird Arlene to confront the sordid environment responsible for her outlaw life, Marsha Norman’s Getting Out also traces the spiritual struggle of a brutalized, crippled human being to escape the gloomy conviction that there might be nothing better. But though her mother denounces her as a loser, her former pimp tempts her with easy money, and the ghost of her younger self torments her with nightmarish memories, Arlene vows to travel the hard, honest road to independence, aided by fellow ex-con Ruby, former prison guard Bennie, and the hope of being reunited with her prison-born son.

Director Lisa Olivarez deftly avoids the facile sensationalism that made Getting Out one of the “I Am Woman, Hear Me Rant” theatrical staples of the 1980s, digging deeper to explore the journey by which all sinners accept and ultimately transcend their past. This pilgrim’s progress is made clearer by having both the amoral young Arlie and the older, wiser Arlene onstage and visible simultaneously, so that we’re aware at all times of the connection between the two–and all the more horrified by the catharsis required to liberate the older from the younger. Getting Out is not a cheerful play, but Transient Theatre transforms it into an inspirational parable for those whose lives can only go uphill. And isn’t that any of us, at least at times?

Gary Simmers delivers another of his subtly charismatic portrayals as Bennie, the would-be suitor as naive as Arlene in the customs of the world “outside,” as do Debra Rodkin as Arlene’s slatternly mother and Deb Siegel as the grimly humorous Ruby. But Christina Koehlinger–one of Chicago’s most underrated actresses–is the one to pocket the show. Her Arlie has the scrappy grace of a baby coyote and a voice strident and triumphant enough to carry to Saint Charles. By contrast India Whiteside’s Arlene, though technically competent, is curiously externalized for a role so broodingly contemplative.