When We Were Young and Unafraid

”House of Cards” writer Sarah Treem explores sexual power struggle through the lens of domestic violence in her new play, premiering off-Broadway with Manhattan Theatre Club.

Cherry Jones as Agnes, Morgan Saylor as Penny, and Zoe Kazan as Mary Anne in Sarah Treem's When We Were Young and Unafraid, directed by Pam MacKinnon, at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center — Stage I.
Cherry Jones as Agnes, Morgan Saylor as Penny, and Zoe Kazan as Mary Anne in Sarah Treem's When We Were Young and Unafraid, directed by Pam MacKinnon, at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center — Stage I.
(© Joan Marcus)

The scientific principle of entropy makes an appearance in Sarah Treem's new drama, When We Were Young and Unafraid, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage I. "It's a law that says that everything in the universe is falling apart," explains Paul, the only male character in Treem's female-centric play. When energy is low, a thermodynamic system can maintain its order — but when heat is added, chaos ensues. In Treem's thought-provoking play, this heated chaos comes in the form of exhilarating passion, all-consuming rage, and everything that exists within the surprisingly gray area that lies between the two. As laws of physics and nature continue to get the best of her characters, Treem takes advantage of the surrounding rubble, meticulously examining the nuts and bolts that fuse people together in what seem to be nothing but ticking time bombs.

Tony Award-winning director Pam MacKinnon contributes an exacting eye to the play's very specific world, set in 1972 at what seemed like the height of cultural entropy for women. Homemakers were being replaced by bra burners, secretaries by career women, and patriarchal universities by coed institutions of higher learning. Yet, within this particular social and political context, MacKinnon subtly draws out the enormous breadth of Treem's layered work that makes When We Were Young and Unafraid much meatier than just another drama about the enduring female struggle.

Just outside the bubbling core of this social upheaval, we meet a middle-aged woman named Agnes (the incomparable Cherry Jones). She lives on a remote island off the coast of Washington state with her 16-year-old daughter, Penny — aptly portrayed by the young Morgan Saylor, whose organic innocence compensates for her unseasoned stage presence. Agnes runs a charming though somewhat rundown bed-and-breakfast (its soothingly lived-in feel provided by set designer Scott Pask), which moonlights as a shelter for abused women looking to escape their potentially lethal relationships. Even with her sweet southern drawl and eyes that shine with maternal warmth, Jones exudes a silent power over her domestic domain, which she operates under a strict set of rules for both her B&B guests and the women she shelters — rules that are far sturdier than any of her home's dilapidated hardware. The reason for these ironclad boundaries becomes glaringly apparent when Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan), the latest of her distraught young runaways, enters this vacuum-sealed world, wearing the proof of her failure to erect such boundaries all over her bloodied face.

Kazan enters as the poster child of feminine weakness, her trembling high-pitched voice and wafer-thin frame painting a picture of the stereotypical "abused woman." As events unfold, however, she reveals a set of rich layers that give a rare and deeply thoughtful voice to a character who, in our modern era devoted to staunch "gender equality," is prone to be disregarded as a dim-witted burden on societal progress. Perhaps, as Treem's dialogue suggests, Mary Anne's outdated mentality is a hindrance on female upward mobility. Her behaviors, however, are by no means born from stupidity — nor the absolute powerlessness so often attributed to the victims of domestic violence.

Just days after knocking on Agnes' door in an emotional puddle, Kazan overflows with womanly confidence as she instructs Penny, step-by-step, how to win the heart of the high school football star. Though it's a speech that would make Sheryl Sandberg cringe, Mary Anne suddenly transforms from unadulterated victim to an individual whose conscious methods of dating "warfare" have sadly betrayed her. We certainly don't leave this conversation won over by Mary Anne's flawed philosophies — especially as their damaging consequences rise to the surface after they lead Penny astray and Mary Anne, herself, into another questionable relationship with a seemingly harmless border named Paul (played with quietly ominous undertones by Patch Darragh). We do, however, exit with questions about the indoctrinated ideal of "gender equality" — a concept we rarely pause to examine, let alone challenge.

On the opposite side of the fence, we have the stalwart African-American feminist, Hannah, who literally forces her way into Agnes' good graces. Cherise Boothe portrays the boundaryless character with a brazen humor, occasionally veering too broad, but thoroughly satisfying nonetheless. Jones' subdued humor beautifully balances Boothe's brashness, creating poignant moments in the scenes the two share. Boothe is dressed by costume designer Jessica Pabst in full 1970s getup, complete with bell-bottoms, a collared button-up, and an unwieldy Afro, fitting for a woman whose extremist beliefs in political lesbianism are as clichéd as the chocolate-chip-cookie recipe Mary Anne has committed to memory. Still, MacKinnon's soft touch and wonderfully deliberate staging paints this willful extrication from the sexual power struggle, responsible for bringing girls to Agnes' doorstep, as just another alternative tactic of war.

With no example of a healthy heterosexual relationship to speak of, Treem leads us to the potentially pessimistic conclusion that striking a thermodynamic balance between men and women is an impossible feat — at least when it comes to their sexual entanglements. A glimmer of hope, however, can be detected in the subtle sense that if a solution to this riddle were to emerge, Treem would welcome it with open arms and a skeptical eye.

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