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BWW Review: WHAT WE WERE at Pony World Theatre

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Powerful performances shine in a raw, yet predictable play.

BWW Review: WHAT WE WERE at Pony World Theatre
Lisa Viertel, Lauren Freman, and Tracy Leigh in
What We Were from Pony World Theatre.
Photo credit: Sayed Alamy

Like so many companies, Pony World Theatre was in the middle of rehearsals back in March of 2020 when everything shut down due to the pandemic. Now cut to October of 2021 and things are starting to happen again in the theater community and among them is Pony World's second shot at the West Coast Premiere of Blake Hackler's harrowing play, "What We Were". And while the play is a tad predictable, it's no less hard hitting especially with the powerful performances from the small cast.

Based on some real-life events, the play centers on three East Texas sisters, the elder Carlin (Tracy Leigh), the constantly searching Nell (Lisa Viertel) and the main focal point, the younger Tessa (Lauren Freman). When circumstances at home force child protective services to come and take away young Tessa, a 17-year odyssey of hidden pain and secrets revealed begins when Tessa runs away. Years later Nell has never stopped looking for her sister, only to find her in Seattle and still pretending to be a high school girl named Jessica in the foster system. While in Seattle, Jessica meets classmate Luke (Tyler Bonnell) who falls for her, not knowing that she's not who she pretends to be.

As I said, the show leaned in a bit too heavily on tropes we've seen in many other stories of runaways and abuse, which could be said to be a symptom of our society where these stories are all too prevalent. But this one certainly has a twist that the others did not, lending a challenge to director Charlotte Peters and their cast, how to handle the varying ages of the characters over the course of the show. And it's here where Peters and the cast really knock it out of the park. Not only do they manage to convey the passage of time for the characters, but also bring a sense of the tragic in Tessa/Jessica as she continues her ruse. And this bit of wonderful storytelling is aided by an unintrusive, yet practical set by Robin Macartney as well as some gorgeous projections from Jared Norman.

But a show like this relies on a cast unafraid to go to the dark places and the four gifted actors here are quite up to the task. Leigh has a fantastic arc throughout the play as the most repressed of the sisters, determined to keep everything status quo, which only made her eventual catharsis even more powerful. Viertel manages a sweet desperation throughout, as she insists on reuniting her family and her stunning scene where she tried to keep young Tessa from their father shows why she's one of the best actresses in the area. Freman brought in a haunting quality to the broken Tessa/Jessica as we never quite knew what was going on inside her head. Were they all lies or were they her truth? And with what could have been a throw away character, Bonnell proved there are no small parts as he conveyed an unconditional kindness in his character making the betrayal of his kindness even more destructive.

In a world where we've been starved of live theater, this is a fantastic step back to normalcy and a riveting one at that. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Pony World Theatre's production of "What We Were" a welcome YAY-. A stunning story from a stellar cast.

"What We Were" from Pony World Theatre performs at 12th Ave Arts through November 6th. For tickets or information, visit them online at www.ponyworld.org.


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