One of the reasons Zoe Kazan is pleased to be part of the cast of Sarah Treem's new play When We Were Young and Unafraid, is the unusual gender ratio of its cast (4 women to only 1 man). The last time Kazan performed in a play with such a high percentage of women was 2006's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her first professional role.

"I was talking with my friend [Nurse Jackie actress] Betty Gilpin…and we were saying how few plays there are with this many women, let alone plays that are really about something," the actress reflected. When We Were Young and Unafraid, which also stars two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones, is one of those rare works. Kazan plays Mary Anne, a young woman seeking refuge at a bed-and-breakfast/shelter from an alcoholic and abusive husband. TheaterMania spoke with Kazan about why her friendship with playwright Sarah Treem is so meaningful, why she likes unwinding with House Hunters International, and how acting with Cherry Jones makes everyone better.

Zoe Kazan and Cherry Jones share a scene in Sarah Treem's thought-provoking new play When We Were Young and Unafraid.
Zoe Kazan and Cherry Jones share a scene in Sarah Treem's thought-provoking new play When We Were Young and Unafraid.
(© Joan Marcus)

Had you been familiar with Sarah Treem's work before this play?

Actually, I've known Sarah since I was 18. She was at Yale Drama when I was Yale undergrad. And I had seen or read almost everything that she's written, so I was hyper-familiar with her work. And we're friends — you know, Sarah's one of the oldies and goodies in my life. So my first reaction to the play was just honestly pleasure that Sarah had written something so amazing. I've always loved her work but I think this play is very special, and very special to me.

What makes it special to you?

I just think it's a really unusual play. And I really appreciate [it] because it's a play with a lot of ideas in it that's really about people. I was thinking about Top Girls, which is a play I love, and Carol Churchill's work. But that play and some of her other plays that center around women are more sort of explicitly political.

When I first read When We Were Young and Unafraid, I thought that it had a very strong political point of view, but the longer I work on it, the more I feel like it's kind of on everyone's side. All of these people have their points and all of them have personal agendas that are getting in the way of their politics. These people are all in flux in some way.

Your character has experienced some terrible things. How do you deal with playing that so often?

It's really hard. Before I decided to do the play…I really thought about it for a few weeks because I wanted to be sure that I was up for the challenge. That's a really dark place to be. [My character] Mary Anne is in a terrible situation. Her options are so limited and the trouble that she's in is so very real and so familiar to me. I've known many women who've been in some version of this position. You can't half-ass it. You can't fake it. I've been living with her trouble, which is a big thing to shoulder. You have to have the grooves in your mind worn around her troubles. And so it does affect me.

Zoe Kazan takes on the role of the conflicted Mary Anne in MTC's When We Were Young and Unafraid.
Zoe Kazan takes on the role of the conflicted Mary Anne in MTC's When We Were Young and Unafraid.
(© David Gordon)

Is there anything you're doing to pull yourself out of that after the show?

The weird thing is that normally after a play, I go home and try to fill my mind with junk. I watch like, House Hunters International or like, something dumb, Top Chef, something that takes me very far away from where I've been. But the really fluffy stuff just doesn't hold my attention after this play. So I find myself going back to old classic movies that I love. It doesn't even need to be light in nature, I just really want something to absorb me before I go to bed.

What has it been like to be a part of this cast?

It's been fantastic. It's been really interesting because we have so many different ages represented in the cast. Cherry has been my hero for such a long time, and to get to work with her has been the culmination of a dream in a lot of ways. She's so easy to act with, it's like she makes everyone else around her better. She's so effortless onstage.

Have you been learning from each other?

There's a real continuum going on in the women's dressing room. I see little Morgan [Saylor, who plays Penny], and she's 19, and I feel very big-sisterly towards her. There are things I feel like I get to pass on to her. She asked to read all my plays so I brought them into her a couple weeks ago. It feels like a family. Morgan put a little sign on our dressing-room door that says "Welcome to Womynland" — with a y, just like in the play — and that's sort of what it feels like back there.

Who do you think should come see this play?

If I had daughters, I would bring them to this play. I definitely think that I would encourage women to get their butts to the theater and see this play…it's an important play for women to see. But I have also been very moved by the reactions that some of my male friends have had. Some of them have said things like, "You know, I recognize in myself the ability to be a person who could not see this side of things." I think that they felt enlightened by the play, even men who are very enlightened people in general. My boyfriend [Paul Dano] was like, "I felt your pain. I felt what it would feel like to be taken advantage of in that way." And that's very moving to me because I do think that that's one of the purposes of art, to let us see through other people's eyes.