BWW Review: WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID Ignites Conversation at The Keegan Theatre

BWW Review: WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID Ignites Conversation at The Keegan TheatreThe DC premiere of WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID directed by Marie Byrd Sproul in her Keegan Theatre directing debut is nothing if not timely. The play is set on Whidbey Island off the cost of Washington State in 1972, but the remote location and blaring seventies music only highlights the eerie resonance of playwright Sarah Treem's work. In a time before battered women's shelters and legal recourse against male abusers, Agnes (Sheri S. Herren) runs a Bed and Breakfast with a basement entrance for victims of domestic abuse. Her most recent runaway, Mary Anne (Jenna Berk), arrives with an angry gash on her forehead and begins to shape the mind of Agnes' daughter Penny (Kaylynn Creighton) with her acquiescent and yet militantly tactical approach to dating. WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID does not deal in black and white: Treem's arguments are nuanced and delicately fashioned. Violence against women is at times as loud as the gash on Mary Anne's forehead and as quiet as Agnes' cheerful suggestion that her industrious daughter Penny ask a boy to the prom.

Matthew Keenan's enthralling set design invites the audience into Agnes' home before the play begins. We see a kitchen (complete with working sink!), island, dining room table, and small living space, with stairs hinting at a world beyond. Agnes (Sheri S. Herren) floats through the domestic sphere with grace and intention, crafting complex relationships with the women in her house while baking endless batches of pumpkin cardamom muffins. Vulnerable moments seamlessly give way to frantic counter cleaning. The kitchen is itself a fifth character; it soothes and anchors, gives and receives.

At the island in the center of the kitchen ex-nurse Agnes offers Mary Anne some Tylenol for her pain. Mary Anne responds with, "No ma'am, I want to feel this." And so we do. My theatre-going companion spent much of the second act gripping my leg to express his nervousness and occasional discomfort. WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID comes with a trigger warning for depictions and/or discussion of sexual assault, abortion, domestic violence, and sexual content. Such content left theatre goers with much to talk about as we spilled out into the streets, as good theatre so often does.

This is serious stuff, but it's also funny. Nora Achrati's commanding performance as Hannah, an outspoken lesbian separatist who forgoes bras and dreams of "womyn-land", provides some much-needed comic relief. Achrati gives a physical performance punctuated by moments of hard hitting sincerity. Theo Hadjimichael's character Paul, a guitar-wielding B&B tenant and the play's only physical male presence, is as humorous as he is insidious: we laugh as he 'politely' forces his way into Agnes' space and cringe when he overbearingly overstays his welcome. Jenna Berk as Mary Anne rides the highs and lows of her violent trauma, and revels briefly in playful moments while never quite losing her nervous energy.

Perhaps the most affecting relationship is that of Agnes and her daughter Penny. Sheri S. Herren and Kaylynn Creighton delicately navigate the push and pull of a combative mother-daughter relationship and the latent, encompassing love of it all. Herren's measured Agnes and Kaylynn's foot tapping, willful Penny are perfectly matched.

Sarah Treem's WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID is ultimately a story of witness. Agnes tells us to listen to the victim's story. She tells us that the mere act of telling is not enough, that we must act as a mirror for the sufferer. Director Marie Byrd Sproul does not let any frills get in the way of Treem's central message, and as a result we are all implicated.

In the lobby of The Keegan Theatre Dramaturge Katie Baskerville provides the historical framework for First through Fourth wave feminism. She sets the audience a prompt: "What does Feminism Mean to You?" A corkboard of white papers and push pins reads:

"Never having to say you're sorry."

"When all women have equal say, power, and outcomes. Let women run the empire"

"The End of Gender."

"Not being afraid to be loud and take up space."

There is also an envelope for those who don't want to pin opinions to the board, but the message is clear: we are still fighting. Marie Byrd Sproul's directing debut at The Keegan Theatre deals in some of life's darker moments with clarity and authenticity. WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID will leave you with no shortage of things to talk about, from intriguing performances to topical themes.

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID plays through July 8th at The Keegan Theatre. To purchase tickets, call 202-265-3767 or visit keegantheatre.com

Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with 15 minute intermission

Pictured: (left to right) Sheri S. Herren and Jenna Berk. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

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From This Author Evann Normandin

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