When We Were Young and Unafraid *****
By: Paulanne Simmons
Despite its title, Sarah Treemʼs well-crafted new play, When We Were Young and Unafraid, is about young people who are very much afraid, and, in fact should be.
Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan) is a young woman who has run away from an abusive husband. Penny (Morgan Saylor) is a high school senior who falls for the predatory captain of the football team. Hannah (Cherise Boothe) is an African American lesbian with anger issues that do not bode well for her future.
In one way or another they all come under the benevolent care of Pennyʼs mother, Agnes (Cherry Jones), who runs a bed and breakfast that sometimes serves as a refuge for battered women. However, Agnes has only one guest the audience meets Paul (Patch Darragh), a lackluster musician, who is something of a foil to all the bullying men
we never actually meet, although their frightening shadow hangs menacingly over everything that happens in the play.
When We Were Young and Unafraid is directed by Pam MacKinnon, whose direction of Whoʼs Afraid of Virginia Wolf earned her a Tony and proved she understands the drama of dysfunctional families. Her greatest contribution to this play may be in just letting Treemʼs glorious writing and the excellent cast do their job.
In the opening scene When We Were Young and Unafraid establishes the uneasy relationship between this single mother and her studious but rebellious daughter. So by the time Mary Anne arrives it is no surprise that Penny may look for a mentor other than her mother.
Kazan is extremely dexterous in portraying the different sides of Mary Anneʼs character. She is meek and obedient in her dealings with Agnes. But when she is alone with Penny she becomes self-assured and authoritative, downing shots of whiskey pilfered from Agnesʼs cupboard as she guides Penny down the same path that led her to her present
Hannah, who comes to the bed and breakfast looking for work, makes the personal political with her diatribes against men and the system they have created to keep women subservient. But in the end, she also makes the political personal as a voice of reason in an unreasonable world.
Paul is likable enough but sometimes seems as confused about his place in the drama as the audience may be. If Treem is telling us that he is the only alternative to the abusive men who frame this narrative, this is indeed a sorry world we live in.
Jones is full of surprises as the stalwart Agnes. Although she seldom flinches, she is both vulnerable and funny. Jones understands and exploits the many facets of Agnesʼs character.
When We Were Young and Unafraid takes place on an island off the coast of Seattle in 1972. These were the early days of the feminist movement when Rose v. Wade was on the horizon but women were still getting coffee for their bosses. Unfortunately, given recent news headlines, there are few who will watch this searing play and be comforted with the thought that women have come a long way.
Photo: Joan Marcus
When We Were Young and Unafraid
MTC at New York City Center Stage I
131 West 55th Street
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