Fort Worth — Three sisters (already it sounds like theater) make girlish plans to grow up and live in row of colorful houses, side by side, sisters and friends forever. Waking or dreaming, they are pulled by the ties that bind them, threading through time and distance and terrible trouble. And even when those threads appear to have come undone, what seems may not always be so.
Dallas-based playwright Blake Hackler (Enemies/People, The Necessities) has crafted the tough, tender, and lacerating What We Were from an unlikely pairing of story material: his own memories of the lively sisterhood of his Texas-born mother and aunts, and a news report about a sexually abused young woman who, by shifting identities many times, lived as a “teenager” in foster care for years into her adulthood.
The play’s world premiere, laced with a surprising amount of humor (the radically shifting tones well balanced by director Christie Vela), is a co-production of Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre and Second Thought Theatre in Dallas, which has produced some of Hackler’s earlier plays—and where he often appears as an actor or director.
TheaterJones critic Jill Sweeney reviewed the play at Second Thought (read the review here), and joined TJ’s Jan Farrington for the opening night performance at Circle. They talked through their first-view, second-view impressions of What We Were — and Sweeney noted a few subtle shifts onstage. It’s worth noting than Jan is the mother of three daughters, one of them being Jill.
Jan Farrington: What We Were quickly gives us enough clues to know this is a story about sexual abuse by a father who arranges “slumber parties” in the barn for his young daughters, one “special” girl at a time. It’s hard to sit with that knowledge, even when — for most of the play — it isn’t mentioned directly. The dread is always there.
Jill Sweeney: And it seems strange to say, but it’s almost a relief when someone comes right out and says what happened. Though I suppose it’s in line with Hackler’s earlier line about ripping at a scab and just “letting it bleed”: it’s necessary to let the healing process begin.
Jan: Though that revelation speech isn’t quite what we’ve been expecting. The little girl’s memories take shape in fragments and impressions — hearing a radio, sensing others who may (or may not) be near, a glimpse of a starry sky — and not as a direct, courtroom-style description. It’s Hackler’s most elaborate language of the play, but it does convey the stark truth of what happens.
In fact, some of the hardest moments don’t directly mention the abuse, which gives them a terrific impact, especially one scene between middle sister Nell (Jessica D. Turner) and younger sister Tessa (Jenny Ledel) on the night Tessa will first go to her father in the barn.
Jill: It’s a terrible parody of a wedding ritual, preparing the bride — Nell is brushing Tessa’s hair, fixing it “pretty” and weeping silently.
Jan: And they’re facing the audience. We see both faces, Tessa’s bright and joyful as she admires herself in the handheld mirror, Nell’s behind her, contorted with grief—but Nell is a child herself, who can’t speak, can’t tell.
It’s a vividly imagined and realized scene, and Hackler’s distinct writing for each of the three sisters gives the actors plenty to go on.
Jill: Tessa has the key role — and her story is definitely the focus — but it’s Nell who’s at the center of everything, the one whose choices really propel the action. Turner gives an amazing performance.
Jan: She’s the sister who never gives up on them, even though she also lies when Tessa needs her to tell the truth. Nell searches for Tessa, and works on older sister Carlin to face things. We’ve discussed Turner, but Lydia Mackay’s portrait of Carlin, whose survival is fueled by anger and denial, is also memorable. She pushes away any mention of what’s really happening out on that farm—even if it means betraying her youngest sister.
Jill: I feel like I really saw Carlin with new eyes on second viewing of the piece. When I first saw the play, I was so angry with her choices, for how callous she seemed. But seeing it again, I felt so deeply for her. She went through the abuse alone; she had to make up the rules all by herself for how to deal with it (or how not to), to come up with coping strategies, first for herself, then for her sisters.
Jan: Jenny Ledel’s performance as Tessa is so complex: she’s a bouncy, open young girl one moment, and then the confused trickster Tessa, who retreats into fantasy and “pretend” to make her way through adult life. Her face is incredibly revealing as she transitions from one age to another, and we know instantly from that face — and her body language — where we are in the timeline. At moments, when she’s outright lying to boyfriend Luke, we seem to see the whole timeline at once: the open face of the little girl, and the side-eyed, mile-a-minute chattering of the woman trying everything to keep from being known. But Tessa’s lovely spirit keeps shining through, and that’s just plain heart-breaking.
Each character is vivid and alive onstage — and that definitely includes fourth cast member Benjamin Stegmair, who plays Tessa’s young boyfriend Luke, an interesting combination of strength and vulnerability.
Jill: I liked him in Dallas, but I may have liked him even better at Circle; he collapses so completely in his one scene with Nell, dropping the calm facade to show you the child he really is. It’s agonizing.
Jan: So what differences did you see between the play’s first outing at Second Thought and the same production transferred to Circle?
Jill: If anything, the already stellar cast has improved, deepened their performances. I think Ledel in particular toned down her performance—which was excellent from the start, don’t get me wrong, but might work even better with her more matter-of-fact delivery. Scene transitions were perhaps a little crisper, but that may be simply a function of repetition. My only criticism would be that I feel the actors’ movement may not have been sufficiently adjusted for the new space. There were some awkward moments when cast members had their backs to the audience or blocked other actors’ faces from view, and it took away from a few scenes.
Jan: I think we need to mention the Texas-ness of the work before we end. Hackler grew up here. The cadence of the sister’s dialogue is so familiar, and the sounds and tastes are there: cicadas and pickup trucks passing on the road (John M. Flores is the sound designer), and cherry limeades from Sonic. Dahlia Al-Habiell’s set design, horizontal strips of quilt fabrics and the rough-wood inverted V of an old barn, could have been pulled together from the scraps of any Texas ranch or farm. And Aaron Johansen’s lighting has a nice knack of following Hackler’s language—plain when the words are plain and direct, more elaborate and mysterious as the words and images take flight.
I think the one place we came to a crossroads with What We Were was in how each of us saw the resolution of the play. I had the sense that the wishfulness of the ending remained dream-like, and you felt Hackler’s script indicates that they move beyond just dreaming about reunion, and into a new reality. I’d like to think you’re right about that, but…
Jill: I thought that was such an interesting reaction on your part — maybe I’m more trusting? I never interpreted the play as saying that finding Tessa and bringing her home was a dream or fantasy. I certainly didn’t interpret the ending as saying “everything’s fine forever now” — there’s still so much healing to be done — but I think it goes against the play’s spirit to think it ends without hope.
Jan: No, I agree the play does have a hopeful thread running through it, and especially at the end. These sisters experience deep pain, anger, confusion, and loss, but they aren’t destroyed — and that’s hopeful, no matter how each of us interprets the ending.
And I’d like to add that the young Blake Hackler must have been listening with great attention to all the talk that flowed between his mother and the aunts back in the day—because Carlin, Nell and Tessa come across as an extraordinarily “true” set of Texas sisters.
» Read our interview with Blake Hackler here
» View our Proust Questionnaire video with Hackler here