Harper Theater Ensemble: “Lettie” explores an ex-convict’s return to motherhood

Actress and Harper alum Molly Rosen takes on the role of Lettie, a mother who returns home after her prison sentence and struggles to reintegrate herself into the family she left behind. (Photo courtesy of Steve Donisch)

Presented by the Harper College Theater Ensemble, Lettie will make her on-stage debut on March 17 in Building R’s performing arts center. But her story is far from your typical stage play fare, and one that is all-too-often invisible. 

“[I think his play is] trying to give a voice to those that really don’t have it,” student and cast member Brandon Saam said. 

The play stars Molly Rosen as the titular Lettie: a mother and addict who was recently released from prison and is now returning home to her two children, River and Layla (played by J. Cole Lebrecht and Liliana Renteria respectively). However, she finds that her sister Carla (Kat Myers) and husband Frank (Brandon Saam) have been raising Lettie’s two children in her absence, and aren’t willing to forgive her so easily. 

“We often just think of criminals as one dimensional beings who… do something bad, they get sent away – the end,” Rosen said. “But we don’t think about what got them there, what makes them similar to us, and if they do put in the hard work – which most of them do – to improve themselves, what is it like trying to get back into society? Do we really give them a fair chance or not?” 

The playwright behind Lettie, Boo Killebrew, will be visiting Harper’s campus to discuss these questions and talk about the process of creating Lettie during a post-show conversation on March 24. She will be joined by director Kevin Long and dramaturg Mary T. Christel. 

According to Long, the play is “a true Chicago story based on real women.” During the process of writing the play Killebrew drew from her work with local institutions that help formerly incarcerated women reenter society. Similarly to many of the women Killebrew met through these programs, Lettie finds herself in a halfway house, joins a welding program and is locked in the struggle of regaining custody of her kids and control of her life. 

In order to represent these characters in an authentic manner, the cast and crew put in hours upon hours of work, with Long’s own inscrutable attention to detail inspiring others to follow his lead. He even calculated how much time he spends reading, researching, adapting and casting each play.

“It’s 277 hours total, approximately, for each production that I direct,” Long said. “So multiply that by 15 years and about 25 shows, [and] you see how much work goes in.”

Boo Killebrew, the playwright behind “Lettie,” based this story on her research and work with real life female ex-convicts in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Steve Donisch)

This commitment to the craft is why so many of his students come back to working with him. Saam said working with Long is like having “the ultimate resource that I wish I had and never did” during his prior acting experiences at Schaumburg High School. 

“He really helps put things in a different perspective that I didn’t see before,” he said.  

Getting into character is a difficult process, made harder by the stark differences between the lives of the actors and their characters. In order to help his cast ease into their roles, Long uses the Stanislavski technique, which requires actors to find verbs throughout the script that they can shape their characters around. 

This helps them focus on the character’s motivations behind their actions on a scene-to-scene basis, as no stage direction is without purpose.

“There’s an overall objective that your character has… it’s just the little ways in which you try to get closer to it,” Rosen said. 

In addition, he encourages his actors to explore ideas of what the characters’ lives might be like outside of the script.

To get a better understanding of her character, 21-year-old Harper Graduate, Rosen, researched what it’s like to be in prison as a woman for the role, and used what she learned to reconstruct what Lettie’s first night in prison might have looked like. 

“That will be a big image that she can carry and thread throughout the show,” Long said. 

Saam, a 19-year-old playing a man in his forties, has talked to his dad and other family members around Frank’s age to get an image of the life of a middle-aged man. 

“I’ve tried to really think behind what he’s thinking,” Saam said. “Why am I saying what I’m saying? What is it I’m trying to affect from other people? Why am I here?” 

Though Lettie’s production is keeping pace, Harper’s theater department is still reeling from the strangeness of the pandemic. Despite this, Long is optimistic that they’ll be back to their normal production schedule by the fall. 

During lockdown, Long found it important to maintain his usual energetic demeanor while instructing students and actors online, as maintaining that energy helped students still “feel like [they’re] part of the experience” even when they couldn’t meet face-to-face. 

“It’s been an industry challenge for the theater,” Long said. “I mean, that’s our livelihood; people being in the space with us experiencing these plays.” 

“I’m honestly really glad that we were able to stay alive online, but this is a completely different experience from a recorded play,” Saam said. 

Kat Myers, who plays Carla, is a 34-year-old freelance art teacher and mom of young kids. 

“I love this play. I thought that with my kids being so young I didn’t think that I would come back to acting at this time,” Myers said. “But when I saw the posting for the audition… It was amazing. I was really drawn to the piece.” 

That passion for Lettie is evident throughout the cast, with Long remarking that the process of working with this group of students feels like “it’s been the way it’s always been,” marking this show as a strong return to form for the department as a whole.  

“I’m looking forward to it,” Saam concluded. “I think it’s going to be a wonderful experience… I genuinely think that this is something people need to see.” 

More information about the show can be found here.