Credit: Liz Lauren

By a despicable margin, America has the highest rate of female incarceration in the world. Only in the past few years have the nation’s criminal justice institutions begun to acknowledge how decades of draconian sentencing practices have positioned the United States as a despotic outlier among nations of the developed world when it comes to “correcting” its criminal offenders—and the unfriendly environment it introduces them to upon release.

Boo Killebrew’s airtight, blood-curdling new masterpiece uses the broken criminal justice system as a backdrop, then zooms in on what is indisputably one of the most exacting and holistic character studies onstage this year. Desperate to reclaim a role in her teenage children’s lives after seven years in lockup, Lettie (Caroline Neff) navigates sobriety, a skeptical workplace, and the demons of her past under Job-like pressure while living in a transitional-housing complex with a partner in fate (Charin Alvarez). Her kids (Krystal Ortiz, Matt Farabee) have all but forgotten her, and their devoutly Christian guardians (Kirsten Fitzgerald and Ryan Kitley) are loathe to reintroduce such a volatile force into their young lives, custodial rights be damned.

Chay Yew’s Victory Gardens’ production is one of those rare and spectacular alignments of narrative, performance, and direction that makes audiences empathize with each and every one of its characters while exonerating none of them. Killebrew set out to write the untold story of working-class women in America; in doing so, I believe she has also penned one of the great distinctly Chicago plays of our generation.   v