The truth of ‘What We Were’ hits home

The leadership of Ashland New Plays Festival digs deep into their many submissions to find a small clutch of plays worthy of exposure. More often than not, they uncover hits instead of misses.

I’ve seen a lot of good plays at ANPF over the last few years, but nothing has been quite as good as Blake Hackler’s “What We Were,” an astonishing new play about childhood sexual abuse.

Hackler is a young man, but he writes women as though he is inside of their very skin. “What We Were” follows three sisters — Tessa, Nell and Carlin — through 20 years of living with the implications of their father and his “slumber parties” in the barn on a family compound in east Texas.

Each of the women has been through their own “special” night with Daddy, and each has their own way of coping. Tessa is the one trying to outrun her past. Nell is cast as the rescuer/projector, while Carlin is still stoically in denial. Each scene seems to deal with a specific symptom of PTSD in abuse survivors, and each is unflinching in its rawness and honesty.

In one unnerving interaction, Tessa — the youngest of the three girls — is on her way to her first overnight visit with her father (a man never seen, but whose disembodied, clipped and authoritative voice is periodically injected into the proceedings via audio, as though God himself had turned rogue and become king of the dark triad). Nell, the middle child, unwittingly helps to groom the younger girl before sending her off as a lamb to slaughter.

The extraordinary perversity of this scene — wherein pathological behavior is glibly normalized, and the love of a little girl for her father is about to be violated in the most base of ways — rings more true than any film or play I have ever seen about the horrors of child abuse, and I have seen many over the years.

I am myself a survivor of physical and psychological abuse by men in positions of authority. I was amazed and moved by the accuracy and sensitivity with which Hackler has painted these characters. Everything that comes out of their mouths, and each circumstance in which they find themselves, rings terrifyingly true.

Survivors remember a feeling of helplessness at the hands of someone larger and more powerful than themselves. They will often spend their lives renegotiating their own identities as a symptom of this — how might things have gone better had they been a better person, a better son or daughter, a better scholar, a better … anything?

OSF actor Jamie Ann Romero is superb as Tessa, the youngest and “prettiest” of the three daughters, who spends her life shape-shifting from one personality to another in order to accommodate whatever new environment she finds herself in. Romero effortlessly transforms from innocent child to borderline adult. In one scene she is 11 and brimming with innocence and joy. In the next, she is a 37-year-old woman trying to pass for 17 as she finds her latest idea of love with an 18-year-old schoolboy named Luke (played wonderfully and with great humor by Nolan Sanchez). Their scenes together are some of the most touching and authentic in the play, which show all too well how childhood trauma can take the most innocuous of circumstances and turn them into yet another dragon to be fought.

As Nell, Lolly Ward plays the middle sister with a sort of under-the-radar despair that will be familiar to anyone with an enabler in their past. Her job is to keep the peace. In doing so, she becomes a co-conspirator in the dysfunction. Ward’s Nell is a desperate, guilty woman who has her own demons to fight, but prefers to objectify Tessa anew by making her travails the central issue. In many ways, Nell is the most complex character in the play.

In her role as Carlin, the eldest sister, Sherilyn Lawson plays the role of the co-persecutor and denier. The first child to fall prey to her pedophile father, she has too much to deal with to even begin the healing process. Instead, she has latched on to her husband and children as a coping mechanism, and blames her two sisters for continually dredging up the past. Like so many victims, she copes by pretending that life is inevitably about pain, and that strength is the only way through.

Directed by Holly L. Derr, this is a timely play — when would it not be? — in an era when predatory sexual entitlement is front row center. The privileged few are appalled at such behavior. But for many, if not most, girls and women, and plenty of men and boys, there is a deep understanding of what it’s like to live out this sort of horror beyond the proscenium arch.

Mr. Hackler and ANPF, therefore, are due this strange compliment: The closer one is to a history of abuse, the better one will understand this remarkable and groundbreaking play. In the end, it will help any viewer to better navigate the brutal dynamics with which so many adult survivors must live on a daily basis. It could help some of us come to better terms with our past and our futures, and to feel less alone.

If that’s not the point of theater, I don’t know what is.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at [email protected].

(The Ashland New Plays Festival Fall Festival is an annual event that features staged readings of four plays chosen from hundreds of submissions from all over the world. The five-day festival concluded Oct. 22.)

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