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by Kerry Reid

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Playwright: Boo Killebrew

At: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000;; $15-$56. Runs through: May 6

Sometimes a role fits an actor so seamlessly it feels as if it were written specifically for them. That's the case with Caroline Neff and Lettie, now in a gripping world premiere at Victory Gardens. In the title role, playing a woman released from prison after seven years on drug trafficking charges, Neff's signature blend of deadpan wit and raw vulnerability reveals layer after layer of Lettie's damaged-yet-defiant psyche as she attempts to go straight and win back the love of her teenage children.

Those children have been raised by Lettie's sister, Carla ( a terrific Kirsten Fitzgerald ), and Carla's husband, Frank ( Ryan Kitley ). In the wordless first encounter between the two women at Lettie's halfway house, we see the vast fraught distance between them and sense that, while the bridges haven't been burned, they're ready to explode at the drop of a match.

Boo Killebrew's play, directed with surehanded sensitivity by Chay Yew, shows us that, for ex-cons trying to go straight ( and ordinary working people of all stripes, really ), incendiary events are always one accident, one missed curfew, one bad decision away. And always, there's "that little box" on forms for jobs and housing, indicating one's Scarlet Letter status as an ex-con.

Lettie's made bad choices, for sure. Her sullen eldest, River ( Matt Farrabee ) literally bears scars from his mom's past selfishness. Her daughter, Layla ( Krystal Ortiz ), who has taken that name rather than the "Louisa" her mom gave her, seems on the surface to be a success story, earning both straight As and a role in "Annie." But it's clear that life with Carla and Frank has bred its own resentments and doubts for Lettie's kids.

Resentfulness as a character trait can grow wearisome, even in a 90-minute play. But Killebrew skillfully parses out all the characters' fears. Even Frank, who initially is more chip than shoulder when it comes to dealing with his sister-in-law, shows his vulnerable side.

In what could be a cliched "wise Latina" sidekick role, Charin Alvarez shines as Minny, another ex-con in the welding training program Lettie's ended up in ( presumably by chance, as Lettie has no aptitude or interest in it ). Minny's life has contained even more tragedy than Lettie's—and she initially delights in pointing out that white women like Lettie get "the best stuff" when it comes to rehabilitation. But she's also learned the hard way that sometimes in life, you don't get what you want, or what you need.

Lettie doesn't offer inspirational pabulum about rebirth. No phoenix arises from the ashes of Lettie's life. It's just one day after another, realizing that, as Minny tells her with clear-eyed tough love, it's not about moving forward. It's about just moving along.

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