“Some people's lives seem to flow in a narrative; mine had many stops and starts. That's what trauma does. It interrupts the plot. You can't process it because it doesn't fit with what came before or what comes afterward. A friend of mine, a soldier, put it this way. In most of our lives, most of the time, you have a sense of what is to come. There is a steady narrative, a feeling of "lights, camera, action" when big events are imminent. But trauma isn't like that. It just happens, and then life goes on. No one prepares you for it.”
—Jessica Stern, Denial: A Memoir of Terror
Dallas — There’s an inevitability to the action of Blake Hackler’s new play What We Were, making its world premiere as a co-production from Dallas’ Second Thought Theatre and Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre. That’s not to say things move in a straight line; we jump through time in space as we follow sisters Carlin (Lydia Mackay), Nell (Jessica D. Turner), and Tessa (Jenny Ledel) from a Bubblicious pink bedroom in 1979 East Texas to a holding cell in Oregon in 2016 and elsewhere in between. But even as the action moves backwards and forwards, the audience is bracing for impact, for the moment when we’re finally going to have to hear firsthand what abuse these children suffered at the hands of their father. It’s both devastating and cathartic, a lancing of a wound that festers throughout the play, but a necessary evil for the act of healing to be possible. The production, thoughtfully directed by Christie Vela, is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, even funny at times meditation on the work of healing, of rebuilding a life, in the face of trauma.
Over the span of 30 years, we watch as three sisters in East Texas keep a secret about what their father does to them at their “slumber parties” out in the barn until the youngest, Tessa, cracks after five years of abuse and reveals all to the authorities, pulling her family apart. When her sisters won’t back up her story and blame Tessa’s overactive imagination for her claims, Tessa is sent to foster care, and eventually disappears into the system. As the years go by, Carlin, the eldest, married with children, seems to have pushed down her memories of what happened, refusing to acknowledge it and abandoning any thoughts of trying to find Tessa. But middle sister Nell, closer to Tessa and haunted by her failure to protect her from their father or back her up when she reported the abuse, won’t give up on the search. She eventually finds Tessa under a new name, having created new persona after new persona over the years, in denial about her past and truly believing herself to still be a teenager, even pursuing a relationship with high school classmate Luke (Benjamin Stegmair). Nell returns home with Tessa, still unable to acknowledge who she was, to try and help her start her life again, and so that all three sisters can acknowledge their pasts and move forward honestly.
In writing the piece, Hackler, a poet declaiming the (sometimes dubious) beauties of East Texas in this and in previous plays such as The Necessities, which also premiered at Second Thought, acknowledges that he was inspired in part by a story in Texas Monthly describing the life of Texas criminal Tessa Throneberry. Throneberry, born in Wichita Falls, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a family member and would go on to pose as a teenager for a number of years to bilk the foster care system. But in creating the characters of the three sisters, Hackler drew his inspiration from his mother and her two sisters (their interactions, not the story itself), and the reality and warmth of their relationships shines through at every moment. The action is, at times, somewhat tricky to follow, as it moves quickly and seamlessly between the past and the present, but the sense of dislocation is, according to Hackler, deliberately created to push how we experience life in a non-linear way, and also functions quite effectively to showcase how trauma continually happens to survivors, intruding in on the present.
Tessa is at the heart of the action, both her journey throughout the years and the search for her, and Ledel gives a stunning performance in the role, moving effortlessly from Tessa as a sweet, imaginative child to a withdrawn teenager to a woman tangled up in her own lies and lost to herself. Tessa is mysterious (does she even know if the things she’s saying are true anymore?), and Ledel manages to retain her essential sweetness while layering in her fear and rage. But Turner’s Nell is the emotional center of the piece, and Turner’s performance is a master class in agony. Her Nell is always pulled between her sisters, dominated by Carlin but protective of Tessa, and her guilt over failing to either protect Tessa or back up her story when questioned, and her inability to confront her own abuse, devours her life. “Everybody’s always talkin’ about moving on about healing move past move through move…it’s all they talk about on TV—everybody moving but…sometimes I think…like when you’re a kid and you get a scab and they say don’t pick at it you’ll make it worse but all I wanna do is pick. All I wanna do is let it bleed. Let it bleed until it…doesn’t hurt me anymore.” In a particularly perverse moment, Nell is forced to get Tessa ready for her first “slumber party” with their father in a scene with deliberately bridal connotations, and watching Turner’s growing fear and panic as she realizes she can’t stop what’s about to happen is gut-wrenching.
Mackay’s Carlin is wry and funny, a Texas mom complaining of the heat and scolding Nell for failing to make the promised “Texas sheet cake with Dr. Pepper icing” for her husband’s surprise party (a detail that provoked knowing chuckles from the audience); she and Turner feel every bit like sisters of a certain age, sniping at and loving on each other from moment to moment. But she makes it clear that Carlin’s seeming placidity is an act, that she’s pushing down the past at every turn because she feels she has the most to lose by acknowledging it. Her rage at Tessa for breaking their “pact” not to speak of the abuse, threatening her fledgling relationship with her later husband, is frightening in its intensity. Later, when Tessa returns home and she can’t deny the past any longer, Mackay’s controlled collapse into grief is brutal, but she plays the mellowing that follows beautifully.
Stegmair’s Luke is pitch-perfect as a love-struck teen pulled into Tessa (or Jessica, as he knows her)’s orbit. He’s just credulous enough, inclined to believe his girlfriend’s never-ending tales of woe, but retaining just enough skepticism to be believable. His final scene with Nell is a controlled collapse from disaffectedness into grief, and the comfort the two manage to give one another is a surprisingly lovely grace note.
Hackler’s script calls for as little to be onstage as possible, and set designer Dahlia Al-Habieli has honored that while still creating her own vision. The action occurs amidst a series of triangles—a triangular frame suggesting the pitched roof above an attic room, triangular wooden boxes acting as seating and prop storage—reinforcing the image of three interconnected points, with a backdrop of stitched-together quilting, pieces of other ruined items patched together to create something new and beautiful. (The platform looks like it will fit onto Circle’s three-quarter thrust stage nicely.) Vela not only directed the production, but also designed the costuming, which is subtle but suggestive in distinguishing between the three sisters: Carlin and Nell are dressed conservatively in neutrals and tennis shoes, already more like the adults they’ll become than the childhood selves they portray, while Tessa wears a more feminine, floral dress, toughened up with a jean jacket and boots. The sound and lighting design (John Flores and Aaron Johansen, respectively) work harmoniously to suggest the sights and sounds of East Texas, the oranges and pinks of a sunset and the never-ending buzz of cicadas.
In speaking to TheaterJones about the play, Hackler said that, after the reading of the piece at the Ashland New Play Festival in Oregon, he was approached by a number of sexual abuse survivors who told him that he had told their story. “‘[I]f someone comes up and says “I feel seen by that and I feel [that] by being seen in the play I feel a little better, a little more whole. It feels like my story is being told.’ That’s, I think, the highest praise I could possibly ever get.”
It’s a pleasure to report that the praise is well-deserved.