BWW Review: Feminism's Past and Present Explored in WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
In Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati's latest regional premiere, the audience enters to see a tidy and attractive but undoubtedly outdated-looking kitchen with an avocado colored stove and macramé plant hangers. That is because the year is 1972: Second-wave feminism has been rising for a decade, and Roe vs. Wade is about to be decided. In When We Were Young and Unafraid, stage and television writer Sarah Treem introduces us to four women from different generations and backgrounds, and sets out to make the audience decide: Who is the feminist?
Treem sets up the play with this quote from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway: "She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day." And indeed, Agnes and her daughter Penny are "out to sea" on a secluded island in the Northwest where Agnes runs a bed and breakfast.
They seem to have fallen into a comfortable routine that is beginning to be shaken up by Penny's sprouting adolescent desires. Penny and Agnes are like mirror images of each other. While Penny understands second wave feminism on an intellectual level (she easily and comically quotes feminist theory at the kitchen table), she lacks maturity and experience on an emotional level. Agnes, on the other hand, is clueless when it comes to the new women's movement, but seems to be a feminist down to her core, making you wonder what transpired in her past to make her so wary and independent.
The divide between Agnes and Penny is just a small crack until a wedge in the form of a battered woman, Mary Anne, arrives on the scene. She shows up in the wee hours, ringing the bell to Agnes's private basement entrance reserved for women on the run from abusive husbands.
Treem was born almost a decade after her play takes place, and it is fascinating to see a woman raised in third and fourth wave feminism explore the lives of women navigating the alternating promise and pessimism of the second wave. She can view their world from a distance and write from a point of clarity that writers ensconced in their own time may lack.
The women in her play are fractured, desperate, confused, and sometimes certain and hopeful. Unaware of the concept of victim blaming, they spend a lot of time blaming each other for the predicaments they find themselves in, but Treem, as the playwright, is putting the blame squarely on men's broad, strong, and abusive shoulders--seemingly going so far as to use the description of the object of Penny's desire, a football player who wants to "enlist in the army while there is still fighting," as code for "future abuser." In the era in which this play takes place, this may have seemed like man-bashing, and perhaps even now in Trump's "fly-over states" some might see him as the town hero. Times and attitudes are slowly changing, and Treem creates a setting where women can speak their truths to one another in the absence of men.
But here's the rub: The subjects of most of those discussions are...men and, unfortunately, these men still control the action in this play, invisibly, as if by remote control--or is it god-like omnipotence? Perhaps the Gorgons (described in the play by the character Hannah), a feminist separatist group who believed women needed to create a man-free society to be truly liberated, were on the right track. Or did they just sit around talking about men, too?
Directed by Drew Fracher, the Ensemble Theatre's production cruised along at an even and satisfying clip, though, at times, the highs and lows could have used a little more separation. The theatricality could be lacking because of Treem's time spent in television writing but, still, the script is tight enough that the actors could have taken their time on some missed moments.
But, when the moments worked, they were quite impactful. At times, Fracher seemed to pose his actors in compositions reminiscent of Renaissance paintings, the most affecting being the triangular pose of a painting potentially called "battered woman being stitched by nurse." It was simultaneously familiar and unnerving as the lighting, writing, and acting all came together to make an excellent theatrical moment.
Christine Dye effectively portrays Agnes, the solid woman unloved by men, always giving love and never expecting it back. Tess Talbot is a hilarious delight as the irrepressible Hannah, trying to provide support as a clumsy and ersatz husband figure for Agnes. But the real heart of the piece is the proud and super-intelligent Penny, who learns from the abused Mary Anne how to dumb herself down to win a man. Mary Anne seems to think that her techniques give her power over the men, but we know from The Bruises on her face who has the real power. And unlike so many stories about young girls, we don't want Penny to win the boy, we want her to go to college and "wait until she is 30." Delaney Ragusa as Penny does a magnificent job capturing all sides of this complicated young woman.
Photo credit: Ryan Kurtz