On the heels of the recent list of 46 plays by female playwrights released by the Kilroys, here is my review of Sarah Treem’s gripping new feminist play, When We Were Young and Unafraid. Read it below or over at Theatre Is Easy .com!
BOTTOM LINE: This riveting and fearsome new play takes on feminism, women’s expectations, and domestic abuse — and wins.
Our story begins with a familiar scene. A mother is teasing her high school daughter about prom. She’s not going, the daughter declares. It is 1972, not long before Roe v. Wade, and she is steeped in “women’s lib.” And then a bell chimes, suddenly and softly, and they hear a knock. The mother reveals a trapdoor under the living room rug, and our story truly begins.
The reveal that this modest home doubles as a hiding place for battered women is the first of many in When We Were Young and Unafraid, Sarah Treem’s striking new play at Manhattan Theatre Club. As fearless as its title, her writing personifies different facets of the most primal power dynamic in the history of mankind. (Or, I should say, womankind.)
Agnes (Cherry Jones), a former nurse, runs a modest bed-and-breakfast on an island off the coast of Seattle with her sixteen-year old daughter Penny (Morgan Saylor). Flitting in and out are Paul (Patch Darragh, delightful), a guest at the inn, and Hannah (a superb Cherise Booth), a hippie lesbian with a few tricks up her sleeves. The arrival of Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan in a knockout role), on the run from her abusive husband, has unexpected consequences for everyone. First timid and damaged, then a cheery busybody, she coaches Penny in the art of flirtation even as she flinches at the mention of her marriage.
Such is the difficulty of female empowerment. Treem is a clever enough playwright to not just illuminate the plight of the marginalized, but also acknowledge the complexity of that process. Although at first it seems she has simply assigned various feminist attitudes to different characters and arranged them into neat little conflicts, by act two we are watching real people, without any idea of what could happen to them. It helps to have the eminent Pam MacKinnon directing a fiercely committed cast led by Cherry Jones, perhaps the greatest stage actress of her generation.
Jones moves with brisk efficiency, using the particularities of domestic busywork to highlight and undermine Agnes’ status as a true woman warrior. Other than hints at the reason she lost her nursing license, we don’t get to see Jones’ skill until the end of the play, which provides several climactic opportunities for her to demonstrate the full force of her range. One such climax centers on Mary Anne, forced to describe the details of her assault in gruesome detail. Kazan carries the moment with extraordinary control. Her performance throughout is both understated and unexpected, giving horrific depth to a character traumatized equally by arousal and rape. The show is undeniably hers.
So central is feminism to the machinations of this play, it occasionally feels like Treem is wielding a cudgel. Saint Agnes, after all, is the patron saint of virgins, chastity, and rape victims. The only male character is employed solely for comic relief, and later teeters dangerously towards villainy. At one point Penny actually hits herself, screaming “I hate that I’m a girl, I hate that I’m a girl!” But in the wake of this year’s Tony Awards, which recognized only white male playwrights, it’s refreshing to see a cast of women, written by a woman, directed by a woman, audaciously coming to grips with nothing less than female subordination in all its forms. A little on-the-nose feminism is welcome.
(When We Were Young and Unafraid plays at New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, through August 10, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 2PM and 7PM. Tickets are $89 and are available at www.nycitycenter.org or by calling 212.581.1212.)