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When We Were Young and Unafraid

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

When We Were Young and Unafraid
Cherry Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus

Maybe the sweeping societal changes of the 1960s helped matters, but women have never had it easy. Whether trying to catch a man, trying not to, trying to establish themselves, or trying to make a difference in a world where that's all but impossible, the so-called "fairer" sex has often had an existence that's anything but fair. This is the point that Sarah Treem's new play at City Center Stage I for Manhattan Theatre Club, When We Were Young and Unafraid, makes with unaffected, unapologetic clarity.

Better yet, none of the four women in Treem's play, which has been directed with soft strength by Pam MacKinnon, lets herself get mired in ennui of any sort. Each of them has a goal, a set of talents, and a drive that will get them where they're going. That they're all constrained by various obstacles, of either the external environmental or the male variety, is, perhaps not surprisingly, neither here nor there. Even when these women are at the mercy of others, they're still very much in control.

This is a crucial feature for the year (1972), when the Women's Lib movement is still working to catch permanent hold in people's hearts and minds, and the location (an island in Puget Sound, off the coast of Seattle), which is far enough removed from the big city to demand at least a modicum of individuality and self-sufficiency. Those are certainly part of what's on offer from Agnes (Cherry Jones), the fiftysomething matron who runs a bed and breakfast on the island. (The cozy cabin-home set is by Scott Pask, and it's warmly lit by Russell H. Champa.)

Of course, Agnes offers something else, too. She and her teenage daughter, Penny (Morgan Saylor), run a safe house for abused women out of the back room of the B&B, offering beaten, and frequently pregnant, women a place to stay while they pull themselves together again. Their latest "guest" is Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan), who's in her mid 20s and sporting a brutal black eye she earned during an encounter with her drunken and disorderly husband.

When We Were Young and Unafraid
Zoe Kazan and Morgan Saylor
Photo by Joan Marcus

This play is not, however, strictly the story of how Agnes and Penny turn Mary Anne around. No, each represents a soberly different view of late-20th-century womanhood: Agnes never married, and has made herself and her career entirely on her terms, and her bankroll; Penny is a studious homebody who's angling to get into Yale, but secretly yearns to date the captain of the football team; and Mary Anne is struggling to think for and of herself after an upbringing that taught her homemaking and husband-landing skills above all else.

Treem sets the three loose on each other, with captivating results. The changes that each exerts on the others, as she reinforces and explodes the stereotypes that on some level she embodies, paints a sumptuous picture of the woman's lot at a crucial period when all the rules were being either broken or rewritten. Just seeing the stark contrasts between relative contemporaries Penny and Mary Anne is a trip: one thoroughly repudiates the "old ways," whereas the other has mastered how to use them to her advantage a skill that carries both enormous benefits and potentially devastating risks, all of which Treem explores in due course.

But if Treem misses none of these opportunities, she reaches too far in other areas. The fourth woman, a fiercely independent African-American named Hannah (an overreaching Cherise Booth) who's scouring the island in search of a compound full of "lesbian separatists," almost plays like a parody, and uneasily weaves into the narrative alternative views of gender roles as filtered through the lens of Civil Rights. (The most grating of Hannah's many tedious speeches expounds endlessly on the true meaning of the word "lesbian." And the sole man we see, Paul, is written and acted (by Patch Darragh, in full-whine mode) as a plot-device milquetoast who, in comparison to the other examples in the women's lives, is a man who appears just too innocent and good to be true. (Spoiler: He's not.)

It's during the scenes featuring these two that the play is at its dullest, least effective, and most mechanical, but it comes to vibrant life when focusing on the others. Saylor and Kazan play off of each other beautifully, providing vivid depictions of girls who've come of age in drastically different circumstances. Penny transitions slowly (and elegantly awkwardly) from tomboy to proud young woman, while Mary Anne hardens into someone for whom life will never be easy again. The transformations are both subtle but potent, and entirely believable.

Jones has toned down her usual pyrotechnics (which were on full display on Broadway last season with The Glass Menagerie) here, but reveals in Agnes the same extraordinary strength she's brought to her best portrayals (such as Sister Aloysius in Doubt). She's loving but unforgiving, willing to hug and willing to be harsh. The firm but nitpicky mother of the first scene, we eventually learn, is just one of her many personae. Nurse, psychologist, chef, master planner, and inconsolable doubter are all hidden among her depths, waiting for their time to shine. They all do, of course, and the secrets that are eating Agnes and her extended family alive do as well. It's not an easy road, but Jones makes it a thoroughly natural one.

That's a bigger achievement than you may think. Agnes, we learn, has led a remarkable life full of catalytic events many of them far from good. But Jones shows us in her unassumingly fiery portrayal how good can emerge from bad, and under what circumstances the unexpected can blossom into the necessary. Women in the late 1960s and early 70s were facing a universe of heretofore inconceivable possibilities and unknowable consequences, but judged the trip worth the dangers they might encounter along the way. Whether it ultimately proved to be the case, for real women or for Treem's, may long be open to debate. But watching the three women at the forefront of When We Were Young and Unafraid is nothing less than a total pleasure, that indeed seems to be the case.


When We Were Young and Unafraid
Through August 10
New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.nycitycenter.org