WHAT WE WEREBy Blake Hackler
Directed by Christie Vela*
Assistant Director – Caroline Hamilton
Stage Manager – Drew Wall*
Scenic Design – Dahlia Al-Habiell
Sound Design – John Flores
Lighting Design – Aaron Johansen
Associate Lighting Design – Troy Carrico
Costume Design – Christie Vela*
Jenny Ledel – Tessa, ages 6-37
Lydia Mackay* -- Carlin, ages 13-44
Benjamin Stegmair – Luke, age 18
Jessica D. Turner* -- Nell, ages 11-42
* Member of Actor’s Equity Association
Reviewed Performance: 9/28/2019
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The play opens playfully enough, with a Dynasty-inspired game of dress-up by three sisters: six-year old Tessa (Jenny Ledel), eleven-year old Nell (Jessica D. Turner), and thirteen-year old Carlin (Lydia Mackay). Nell and Carlin wear hilarious makeshift ball gowns adorned with garish oversized bows, as they furiously debate which one is Alexis. Ledel adroitly displays the nimble physicality of a six-year old.
These girls are stamped with childish femininity. The pink room is described as “it looks like a Bubblelicious wrapper in here.” The set is perfectly, sublimely eerie, and the lighting enhances the tone of the drama throughout. An unadorned bed sits center stage, with cleverly functional storage benches bracketing it on three sides. An archway shaped like a barn silhouette looms in the background. In back of that, an entire wall is covered with an irregularly horizontally striped patchwork of calico fabric, with pink as the overriding color. There is a flow, sometimes broken, to this unique tapestry. As the play opens, a small pair of tennis shoes has been dropped to one side. Dwarfed by the set, they serve as a metaphor for the small and vulnerable Tessa.
The play begins with sibling sparring and robust humor. We are treated to acerbic dialogue by the domineering older sister, Carlin, who is quick with an insult (“dumb as Texas dirt”). When we learn that she grows up to name her two children Carl and Lynn, it is no surprise.
Quickly, a darker story emerges. “Don’t ask Daddy for things,” Tessa is advised. The story unfolds non-chronologically, immersing the audience in a tale of secrets and ghastly abuse. The ultimate explanation for what we are seeing is shocking, but loosely inspired by (at least) one real life story.
In a devastating scene portraying Nell's interview with child welfare, Nell lies, and Turner's performance is so pitch perfect that we know it. Nell then lies about her lies, and this haunts her for decades. It is unclear what ultimately damaged her more: the abuse to her, or her culpability in failing to prevent, and in covering up, the abuse of a sister five years her junior. Turner’s portrayal of the weak Nell, wracked with guilt, is piercing, powerful, and haunting.
It is unclear whether Tessa is beyond the help of therapy by the time she is removed from her sick family. Ledel’s skill at shape-shifting is indescribable: she changes age in front of us. I am not sure I resisted the urge to flinch as Ledel’s Tessa describes her sessions with Daddy in the barn. It is not graphic, but rather alludes to the process of the mind peeling away from reality. By this time, we know the extent of psychological devastation Tessa suffered. Tessa has been robbed of every truth that matters, and truth becomes meaningless to her in turn. In exchange for the criminal abuse of her body, and the ultimate ravaging of her mind, Daddy doles out presents: markers, a coat with cherries. The banality of these details is devastating. Hackler has written something daring here. Ledel’s incredible, no-holds-barred performance is not to be missed.
The title, What We Were, begs examination, in that the "were" assumes that these women are no longer victimized children. That is not true for Tessa, and only clearly true for Carlin, but the price she paid to carve out a different life for herself was high. Ultimately, she is more concerned with Dr. Pepper icing on a birthday cake than finding the lost Tessa. Carlin is a difficult character, and it is a testament to the gravitas of Mackay’s talent that she imbues Carlin with sympathy. Carlin has a path for herself: she is a dependable worker, and she found a man to love and marry her. Mackay shows us the fear and desperation beneath the surface of Carlin’s determination. Carlin’s behavior is at times ugly, but the cause for it is far uglier.
Southern Methodist University BFA student Benjamin Stegmair looks every bit as young as the eighteen-year old Luke. He is convincing as the sweet, gullible high school student who, after breaking up with an unkind girlfriend, is drawn to Tessa’s uniquely fierce intensity. He also does a great job with Luke's comic relief lines.
Blake Hackler is an award-winning contemporary playwright from Texas. What We Were was named one of the winners of the 2017 Ashland New Play Festival, and it is easy to understand why. In this play, Hackler raises thought-provoking questions regarding the extent to which victims owe a duty to one another. What if Victim A’s defense mechanism escalates the harm to Victim B? When is lying excusable, or if not excusable, when is it understandable? What is the depth of society’s duty to save children from criminal parents? Here, government services are better than the child’s family, but that is a low bar. This awful subject matter is unfortunately still relevant; just this weekend the New York Times published an article about pedophiles breaking the internet (okay, a more accurate description is that the zeal for kiddie porn has outpaced the efforts of both law enforcement and the tech companies; an unbelievably sickening but actually real problem).
In What We Were, the dialogue is realistic, and also unflinching at times, as the play plumbs the depths of grief and desperation. Nell cries that she will pick a scab because, “all I want to do is let it bleed; let it bleed until it doesn’t hurt anymore.” The defense mechanism for an overt injury—a scab—is an apt metaphor. For Carlin, the psychological wound apparently scabbed over. For the other two sisters, it never healed.
Hackler shows us two diametrically opposed opinions on abuse survivors, presumably due to the shifts in time periods and perhaps location. Decades ago in East Texas, a furious, desperate Carlin is convinced that to keep Michael’s love, she has to maintain the family cover-up. However, in contemporary times, Tessa has perfected the act of a perpetual victim, for which she receives comfort rather than scorn and rejection.
The ending is hopeful, if also ambiguous. The searing intensity of this production is an overriding reason not to miss What We Were. The actors' performances are extraordinary.
Circle Theatre, in a world premier co-production with Second Thought Theatre
September 26 – October 19
230 West 4th Street
Fort Worth, Texas 76102
For information and Tickets call 817 877 3040 or go to https://www.circletheatre.com.