Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
When We Were Young and Unafraid, now in production at The Custom Made Theatre Co., takes place in 1972, when the women's movement was beginning to gain momentum. (Hannah's Dylan reference likely refers to the passage by Congress of the Equal Rights Amendment, whichtrue to Agnes's world-weary rejoinderwas never ratified.) Yet, despite her rather jaded outlook, Agnes has never stopped caringfor the women who come to her for refuge, or for the guests who wander into her Whidbey Island inn.
All the action takes place in the kitchen, ostensibly Agnes's "private space," where she bakes muffins and brews coffee. The set, by designer Bernadette Flynn, feels far more like an under-the-radar safe house than it does a quaint Puget Sound inn. With its wood paneling, Formica table, and baby poop brown-green linoleum floor, it seems the sort of place the family on "Roseanne" would have moved up from.
Sarah Treem has filled her play with rich, fascinating, well-rendered characters. In addition to Agnes and Hannah (a radical lesbian who has come to the island searching for a group of like-minded feminists who have created their own female-only commune, called "Womynland"), there's Penny (a sparkling Zoe Foulks), a high school junior hoping to matriculate to Yale only four years after it began accepting women, who both seems and doesn't seem like Agnes's daughter. (Interestingly, Saint Agnes is the patron of virgins and chastity.)
New to the house is Mary Anne (Liz Frederick), who arrives bloody from a beating from her husband. Frederick manages to embody both the strengths and weaknesses of her character. Mary Anne has confidence and resolve, but her skills in manipulating men are based in stereotypes the other women have never embodied or are trying desperately to shed. But for 16-year-old Penny, whodespite initial protestations and commitment to feminist wokeness ("I can't think of anything more bourgeois" she says of going to the prom)is secretly gaga over the captain of the football team, Mary Anne's advice helps her to reach her shallower goals, which, tragically, may cause her to miss out on achieving loftier ambitions.
The cast (save for Matt Hammons, whose portrayal of a songwriter who presents as a gentle, fragile soul, yet still has a streak of toxic masculinity and classist bigotry, lacks both the sex appeal and menace the role requires) is excellent. Ross's Agnes is hard-nosed but not bitter, and always suffused with a sense of maternal warmth. Foulks is perfectly focused, intense, and angsty in that way teens who are smarter than they are wise seem to radiate. Frederick exhibits a lovely vulnerability (when Agnes stitches her wound, a tear running down her cheek glistened in the light) that both belies her inner power and lays bare her all-too-human weaknesses.
Renee Rogoff's Hannah, however, may be the performance of the night. Her side-eyed glares of skepticism reveal truths the rest of the characters don't want to face in ways that are marvelous to behold. I'd love to see her in even meatier roles. (Note to casting directors: I think she'd make a marvelous Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.)
While playwright Treem created an engaging cast of characters, and raises interesting political issues through a very human lens, the play overall left me somewhat unsatisfied. There's a moment early in the first scene involving a trapdoor that had me waiting all night for a resolution that never came, and too many loose ends feel less like possibilities that will be explored by the characters and more like paths into a dark future.
Still, When We Were Young and Unafraid is well worth your timeif not for a compelling look into the cracked mirror of women's two-steps-forward-one-step-back path toward equality and justice, then for a quartet of actors giving powerful performances of women facing challenges that are sadly unique to their gender.
When We Were Young and Unafraid, through February 9, 2019, at The Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $27-$30, and are available at www.custommade.org.