What We Were – Review By Gadi Elkon

Spanning twenty years, What We Were, traces the lives of the three women as they find their way back to each other.

Here is my full review of the Second Thought Theatre and Circle Theatre co-production.

What We Were tells the story of Carlin, Nell, and Tessa, three sisters who suffered a childhood of abuse. Now adults, each lives in some degree of denial, but the lies are starting to become more unbearable than the truth.

STT black box style theatre allows for a new production design for every show.  To showcase the late 1970s of Blake Hackler’s 3rd World Premiere at STT a simple backdrop look was applied.  A wooden stage with three small chests and a single bed.  Three seating areas surround the stage allowing for a large backdrop area that is blocked by a large beautiful quilt.  This vibrant multi-layered quilt (a Drew Wall creation!) easily could be something grandma would pass down.  The trifecta elements point to the play’s tale of 3 daughters, but the quilt holds a prominent place.  With the coloring and texture choices made by the STT crew the quilt gives a timeless element to the production.  After finishing the play I couldn’t stop thinking of that quilt and how much it added to Hackler’s work.  His story of an unseen father’s drastic impact on these three different daughters you realize that quilt could stand in for so many more families of similar horrors.  Blake’s work has it’s Texas touches whether its a twang (especially well done by Jessica D. Turner), a Dr. Pepper reference or the obvious Dallas discussions, but his look into child sexual abuse is universal. It wouldn’t shock me to think that every audience that witnesses this co-production (Circle Theatre) that their are members of the audience that have survived their own tragic tales.  That gets back to this ominous quilt that acts as a comforting reminder of just how connected we all are aware of this subject.

The trio of talented actresses really tackle this material with such gusto and power.  Jenny Ledel transformative ability makes Tessa (or whatever her name may be now) our fun connective element.  Her honest mental break is what impacts this constant terrible tale.  It’s her youthful sassy nature that attracts Benjamin Stagmair’s Luke, holds Jessica D. Turner’s Nell in a state of constant sorrow and forces Lydia Mackay’s Carlin to escape to her own constructed household of love.  The tremendous acting fortifies Hackler’s devastating take on abuse and it’s many impactful consequences.  The steady eye of Christie Vela is on point as the actors are left to tackle their emotions in perfect standoff duos most of the time.  Ledel once again showcases a real strength as her Tessa carries so much of the haunting story.  Without her breakdown this family’s dynamic may never be confronted.  The subject matter is handled delicately though as we understand the father may be doing something weird, but it’s not realized until Carlin’s final confrontational breakdown near the play’s conclusion.

This production is a more insular work to close out STT’s season.  Hackler’s work seeps into your pours as you slowly understand just how damning abuse can be to the mentality of those affected.  The physical impact is barely even described.  We don’t get any gruesome moments of daddy doing the deed.  Instead Hacker gives us a spooky child like response of the gifts to the girls that mask what has happened to them.  The greater the gift almost the more horrifying the truth of daddy’s work.  The girls are left to deal and cope.  Hackler has given us a work that showcases many of the honest reactions and woven in a story of redemption through connectivity.  Their shared horror is blood deep and thus only truly broken by their final familial ties being reunited.  The heartbreak and failure along the way are not as important to the final awakening moment.

In the end, a cool Dr. Pepper to cool off the Texas summer is all we can do to move on from these horrors.

What We Were runs through Sept 21st at Bryant Hall and transfers to Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre from September 26th through October 19th.

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