What We Were by Blake Hackler. Produced by Pony World Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts. Onstage October 15 -November 6, 2021. Directed by Charlotte Peters. With Lauren Freman, Tracy Leigh, Lisa Viertel, and Tyler Bonnell.
If you feel ready to embrace live theater again, and you long for the dark cover of a large room with many silent eyes riveting their gaze at the lighted area in the center with real people telling a story of heartbreak, neuropathways that are disrupted by trauma, and a history of never speaking for themselves, then you must hurry to get tickets for What We Were at Pony World Theatre.
Before I get too far into the “about” section, you’ll be gifted with performances by four of Seattle’s solid talents. Tracy Leigh and Lisa Viertel are two veterans of many small company productions and when you see their names in a cast line-up, you can feel secure that you’ll be experiencing their high-quality acting. They are nuanced and complex and embody full human beings with clear positives and negatives.
Lauren Freman and Tyler Bonnell complement these actors, with Lauren carrying the bulk of the focus and Tyler providing a heart-breaking vulnerability in a small but crucial role. All three women must time-shift without changing a thing except their behavior and do so while never leaving the audience feeling unsure of “when” these characters are portraying the events.
This is a play that is difficult to write about without certain spoilers. The play is a “soft-focus” presentation of incest. While Pony World Theatre does a good job of providing content warnings, both on the website and at the theatre, the play itself does not hit you in the face with the subject area.
It’s a kind of dreamy, poetic, and suggestive way of presenting this terrible and difficult trauma. No character talks explicitly of behaviors, but “grooming” is pretty clear in their discussion about how they were considered “special” by their father.
In addition, playwright Blake Hackler was prompted to write this play by an article in a Texas publication about a real small-town girl who left town around age 18 and travelled to probably several dozen locations to pretend – for many years – to be a teenager in need of help and support. Portland and Seattle are prominent in the story.
Tessa (Freman) is the youngest of three daughters and we meet her as her older sister brushes her hair and gets her ready for a “special” night with their father. Tessa is excited because it’s “her turn” to have such a night, knowing the older girls have had what she perceives to be a treat. Nell (Viertel) tries to suggest that Tessa really doesn’t need to participate, but cannot bring herself to interfere any more than asking Tessa to have a fun night with her instead.
From this introduction, we understand that the older girls, Nell and Carlin (Leigh) have never told anyone and find themselves incapable of stopping it from happening to the youngest. Carlin is particularly bound to silence and a vicious protection of their secret. Maybe it’s because, as the oldest, she has the heaviest burden of letting it happen to both younger sisters.
The past-tense title, What We >Were<, suggests that it was during an age (1970s) that was not as progressive and aware as we supposedly are now. But we shouldn’t pretend that family secrets have gone out of style in any way.
The intriguing character that Tessa develops may or may not have been triggered by this trauma directly. Her mental illness could have manifested later anyway, but no one can know. But Tessa’s answer to coping is to change her name dozens of times, move to community after community and then believe herself to still be 17 years old and a high school student.
Bonnell has a sweet and innocent role as a teen boy, Luke, who falls in love with the person who turns out to be a lot older and not at all who she has told him she is. He’s convincingly awkward and sweetly enthusiastic in the role.
At slightly over an hour and a half, this is a lovely way to immerse yourself in live theater again!