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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID
at City Center, Stage 1

BEGINNING TO LIBERATE
By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON

  (L to R) Cherry Jones, Morgan Saylor and Zoe Kazan/ Ph: Joan Marcus

In the early going of Sarah Treem’s When We Were Young and Unafraid, now premiering at Manhattan Theatre Club (at City Center), it seems like this talented writer might have an intriguing story to tell, but little substantive to say. Well, you know what they say about first impressions. By the end of this two-hour-15-minute play, Treem has us thinking about the early days of women’s liberation (the play is set in 1972), abortion rights, civil rights, domestic abuse, lesbianism and personal choice. And if all this sounds thrilling, thought provoking and more than a little unwieldy, you’d be right.

Fortunately, if anyone on the current theatrical scene is equipped to deal with such complex issues, it’s the Tony-winning director Pam MacKinnon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), who not only keeps the work smartly paced, but works her patented brand of magic to tie all the work’s plot threads and personal stories together as neatly as possible. A savvy director of actors as well, MacKinnon has put together a dream cast headed by the ever-sublime Cherry Jones, who navigates the play’s tricky shores with remarkable aplomb.

Devoid of makeup or mannerisms, Jones is completely in her element as Agnes, a forthright, no-nonsense and decidedly guarded middle-aged woman who owns a house on a remote island near Seattle. Her residence does triple-duty: as home to Agnes and her book-smart but sheltered-from-life teenaged daughter Penny (Homeland's Morgan Saylor, in an incredibly accomplished stage debut), as a local bed and breakfast and, most importantly, a refuge for local battered women.

We discover that last purpose quite early in the piece with the arrival of Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan), a seemingly scattered and nervous young woman who arrives with quite a shiner delivered by her (never-seen) husband, and whose presence ultimately changes the lives of Agnes, Penny and B&B visitor Paul (an effective Patch Darragh), an unhappy and slightly creepy San Francisco music teacher whose wife has left him.

The characters’ lives are also upended by a later (and strikingly less believable) visitor, Hannah (Cherise Booth), an angry African-American lesbian who suddenly appears at Agnes’ door. Boothe is not only thoroughly believable and strikingly sympathetic in what could be a truly unpleasant role, but her presence adds some much-needed humor to this often dark work. She also acts as messenger for some of Treem’s more political themes and statements, sharply reminding us how much the world has changed in the past four decades.

That point is also brought home even more forcefully by Mary Anne, especially in the scenes when she talks about how a woman’s life revolves around a man, and when she gives Penny a potentially dangerous course in the use of feminine wiles to catch the eye of her school’s quarterback, Tommy Butler. Kazan seemed like the theater’s shining beacon of hope in many of her earliest stage performances, but I’d been less impressed by her work of late. Here she redeems herself with a sensational, deeply felt performance, which manages to embrace all of Mary Anne’s internal struggles and outward contradictions.

Throughout the play, the mystery of Agnes unravels in bits and pieces (without giving too much away, she’s a former nurse), and when the final revelations come, they’re heartbreaking – thanks in large part to Jones’ powerful delivery. We also finally realize the title of the play refers not only to Penny, to Mary Anne or even Hannah, but especially Agnes – and anyone who never knew what life might have in store for them.

 


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