Theater review

A pair of ribbons is freighted with enormous significance in Blake Hackler’s “What We Were,” a play filled with objects that are strikingly evocative of specific memories — a few of them happy, most of them gut-wrenchingly painful. A coat covered in cherries. A poster of cats playing tennis. A Bible with a personalized inscription.

Those ribbons — you won’t forget them. Tessa, 11, pulls them out of her pocket and hands them to 15-year-old Nell, asking for pigtails. Nell complies, holding back sobs as she helps prepare Tessa for a sleepover in the backyard barn with their dad.

Pony World Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Hackler’s play, in which three sisters growing up in small-town East Texas — Tessa (Lauren Freman), Nell (Lisa Viertel) and Carlin (Tracy Leigh) — take divergent paths to cope with their shared trauma.

Hackler owes a lot to Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” a harrowing play about family sexual abuse that unfolds in reverse chronological order. “What We Were” fractures its structure to similar effect, jumping across decades and back again, every scene imbued with the haze of reconstructed memories.

The play takes inspiration from the real-life story of Treva Throneberry, a Texas high schooler who disappeared in the mid-1980s, and as her analogue Tessa, Freman delivers an effortlessly ranging performance that slips between youthful exuberance and cagey mistrust. This is partly due to the shifting timeline and partly due to a plot twist that Hackler treads into lightly. “What We Were” is far more interested in examining the shattering ramifications of events everyone sees coming than in springing any gotchas.

“What We Were” is a memory play that lets us in on multiple people’s memories — even Luke (Tyler Bonnell), the high school senior who falls for Tessa, and the only other character in the play. But its crux is Nell and that scene with the ribbons.

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Viertel, whose ebullient stage presence makes her one of the city’s best comic actors, here subverts that vitality, using it as a desperate concealment strategy as Nell attempts to will her recollections into happy ones. That facade crumbles as she styles Tessa’s hair. Viertel accesses the nascent trauma of the moment and the subsequent decades of regret in equal parts, to riveting effect.

Directed by Charlotte Peters, Pony World’s production is stripped-down, with a simple porch set by Robin Macartney and projections by Jared Norman to signify the setting: an azure sky or a “Bubblicious-pink” bedroom wall. The performances are less revealing of time and place.

Though the play opens with a girlish game of dressing up as “Dynasty” characters, with caricatures of childhood to match, Freman, Viertel and Leigh soon start layering in levels of complexity to their performances, and it’s rarely immediately clear just what point in time we’ve traveled to.

Leigh, another of Seattle’s great actors, is a more distant presence here, with an aloof brusqueness that could be an 18-year-old’s lashing out or a 40-something’s entrenched protective mechanism. In reality, it’s both at once. Trauma reverberates in each performance, flattening present and past together in an inextricable unit.

Will the future be any different? Hackler offers glimpses, but they aren’t uncomplicated ones. Just how much you buy into them is up to you.

‘What We Were’

By Blake Hackler. Through Nov. 6 at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$22; proof of vaccination and masks required; ponyworld.org

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