• Cristee Cook

Second Thought Theatre’s production of 'What We Were' is a difficult but pertinent story.

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

When you go see Second Thought Theatre’s production of What We Were, understand you’re not only there to see a play, you’re there to be a witness. Playwright Black Hackler’s new play tackles the subject of childhood abuse. It isn’t an easy story to hear, but it’s an important one.

Director Christie Vela expertly pilots the journey and the themes of separation and reunification, honesty and betrayal, and the complications of sisterhood and family relationships. I left the performance with a lot of questions, but I think that’s part of the purpose of telling this type of story – the details we don’t know are just as important as the ones we do. The theme of what is true and what is fantasy is only limited to what we’re willing to confront. It’s hard to believe the unbelievable, but under Vela’s direction, we are able to bravely face the truth, however disquieting.

The 4-person ensemble enriches the text. Luke, played by Benjamin Stegmair, brings an innocence and hopefulness that is refreshing. As we progress into the truth of the story, Stegmair’s portrayal of Luke grows in maturity while maintaining a youthful spark. Together with Lidel, there’s some comic relief. He’s a welcome breath of fresh air in a heavy story.

The sisters: Carlin, Nell, and Tessa each provide an aspect of the story that deepen the plays themes. It was hard for me to choose which of the actresses provided the most to the story because they all delivered such solid performances. As Carlin, Lydia Mackay is the intense older sister. I expected her character to be a protector figure, but instead, she is a dissenter, focused on a brighter future for herself. But when Carlin finally faces the truth, it is a powerful catharsis. Mackay’s performance is a bombshell of how hard a heart becomes when it locks a secret inside, and what unleashes when you dare to let the secret out. She has the least stage time of the three but might pack the hardest punch.

Nell, played by Jessica D. Turner, is the protector/caretaker and balance between Carlin’s fierce self-preservation and Tessa’s disassociation. Turner as Nell is tender, fearful, and nurturing in the face of family sickness and acts as a bridge of reunification. Nell has a yearning that Turner delivers with grace.

The youngest sister, Tessa, played by Jenny Ledel, carries the weight of the family’s destruction. A portrait of how abuse can shatter us, Ledel is convincing and endearing, never falling to any contrivance about what mental illness looks like. Instead, she embraces the delicate teeter-totter of fantasy and truth with precision.

Set designer Dahlia Al-Habieli masters the power of simplicity. The quilted skyline provides a perfect backdrop for the play’s memory landscape. The tapestry is a desolate horizon, the comforts of a deeply imperfect home, the tattered fallout of abuse, and what it looks like to try piece ourselves back together. The single wooden platform supports not only all of the plays action, but the theme of triangulation that often happens in family dynamics. Frankly, I found Al-Habieli’s design mesmerizing.

At times, the plays rhythms are highlighted through silence. Halfway through the story I realized that there was no opening music, no standardized pre-show playlist. Instead, important transitions are sound tracked with the slamming of a dresser drawer, a school bell, or late summer cicadas at sunset. Through Sound Designer John Flores’ contribution to the story, sound (or lack thereof) becomes a catalyst for the memories we visit and how far into the truth we’re willing to go.

Hackler’s play is bold, both in how openly it addresses the theme of childhood abuse and how concealed some of the details remain. It’s a study of how memory filters our reality, and how we blur the lines of truth. It’s a circuitous drama with a non-linear timeline but takes a pretty realistic stance of how humans operate in the face of things we’d prefer to deny. I appreciated the sophistication of Hackler’s writing, and the entire production team for earnestly weaving it all into a life form.

Second Thought Theater is presenting the world premiere of What We Were in association with Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre. You can catch it in Dallas through September 21st at the Kalita Humphreys Campus. Grab your tickets (and bring your Kleenex) HERE.

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