BWW Reviews: WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID Debates Meanings of Equality
In 1972, the year in which Sarah Treem's engrossing drama When We Were Young And Unafraid takes place, both houses of congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment, which eventually failed to be ratified by a sufficient number of state legislatures.
The twenty-four uncomplicated words of the amendment's first section may seem clear enough to any individual, but words and their consequences have a way of being open to interpretation, and even those who the amendment was most meant to benefit were not in total agreement of its meaning and of its value.
While it's doubtful that any of the four women Treem introduces us to would be against any of her gender's right to equality under the law, their different ages, experiences and other factors motivate them to see equality in different ways.
Cherry Jones, the evening's wide and sturdy anchor of low-key, no-nonsense directness, plays Agnes, an ex-nurse and the owner of a bed and breakfast on an island off the coast of Seattle. Scott Pask's wonderfully detailed set depicts the large rustic kitchen and dining area Agnes shares with her teenage daughter, Penny (Morgan Saylor). That part of the house is off-limits to their paying guests because their home also serves as a safe haven for abused women who need an emergency place to stay while figuring out their next moves.
The gentle ringing of muffled chimes and four clear knocks coming from the basement signal the arrival of another woman in need. Mary Anne (an excellent Zoe Kazan) has a gaping wound where her husband hit her and nowhere else to go.
As she becomes more comfortable in her new surroundings, Mary Anne starts bonding with Penny in a way Agnes never has. Though the Yale-bound teenager expresses no interest in going to the prom, she admits she has a bit of a crush on the captain of the football team. Mary Anne, who blithely dismisses the Women's Lib movement, encourages Penny to get her man by hiding her intelligence and following her simple steps to making him think that asking her out was his idea.
Meanwhile, a black lesbian revolutionary named Hannah (bundle of confident energy, Cherise Boothe), who arrived in search of a female commune named Womynland, has convinced Agnes to employ her handywoman services. Though Agnes finds Hannah's theory of how men and women should live in separate societies, meeting only occasionally for the purpose of procreation, a bit far-fetched, Hannah can see a clear bond between them.
If some of the characters, particularly Hannah, express themselves in manners that sound like the playwright defining their types, it's not so unbelievable to think their words are heavily influenced by the published rhetoric of the day. Pam MacKinnon's direction underplays the dramatics and the play feels like we're simply viewing the everyday occurrences of Agnes' life, conveying the message of such events being part of a continuous cycle.
Though Mary Anne's husband never appears, his presence is certainly felt. The only male character, B&B guest Paul (Patch Darragh), may appear as a safe, sensitive fellow, but there's an overly protective Sir Galahad streak in him that seems motivated by the belief that being nice to a woman has its rewards.
The play's strongest point is its depiction of women supporting each other despite their disagreement of what is best for them all. Judging from the diverse opinions that were enthusiastically expressed by audience members at the talkback following the performance I attended, When We Were Young And Unafraid should spark quite a bit of spirited discussion.