In recent times playwrights have been inviting us into worlds we would never know without them. Harvey Fierstein has set Casa Valentina in a camp in the Catskills to which certain men like to find themselves among others who like to get into a girdle, a gown, a wig, a pair of heels and all the accoutrements that make a female into a woman. William Fowkes is about to open one I’ve read, in which a Ft. Lauderdale club caters to elderly homosexuals who want the company of others of their persuasion in a social setting.
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men takes us into the bunkhouse of a group of cow hands in the 1930s, and Alan Ayckbourn treats us to the flora and fauna that often accompanies the British middle class life in England’s small towns. I could go on and on, and I hope you’ll agree most of us don’t get to spend much time in these varied and interesting microcosmic spaces, and they all contribute to our enjoyment and education when we attend theatre. Now we come to yet one more particular world, a bed and breakfast on an island off the coast of Seattle, in 1972, where Cherry Jones is playing hostess to a guest, a daughter and a battered woman who needs shelter and protection after the abusive man in her life has been at her.
When We Were Young and Unafraid begins quietly and amusingly as we meet Agnes, the proprietor and manager of the comfortable but simple Bed and Breakfast. Her 16 year old daughter, Penny, lives there too, as does a paying male guest, Paul, who has recently been left by his wife. The new arrival is Mary Anne, who has been referred to the retreat and will now be in the care of Agnes as she attempts to recover from a brutal beating by her husband of six years, a man named John, whom we never meet. A black militant lesbian named Hannah will complete the cast, and with these five characters the playwright Sarah Treem begins to weave her tale.
As I said, she starts slowly. Ms. Jones is once again in top form as Agnes — self reliant, radiant, capable, caring, a woman who’s chosen to make caring for others her life’s work. The first act is engrossing — the dialog is believable if somewhat simplistic. But these are not large creatures of the world, and as we are told bits and pieces of what led to Mary Anne’s abuse, of Paul’s painful dismissal by a wife who did not find him “man enough” to keep her love alive, of Hannah’s fervent hatred of all things male, and of Penny’s first yearnings for one of her high school male mates, we become engaged.
It’s in the second act that Ms. Treem wanders and her play becomes a misandrous tirade. I had to look up that adjective, so to help you out if you’re not familiar with it, it simply means the opposite of misogynous, denoting those who demean, despise, and have little use for men.
Agnes, who tells Hannah in the first act that she is not a lesbian, is full of other small and large fabrications. Penny falls under the influence of Mary Anne, which concerns Agnes, and to cut that influence she resorts to a couple of surprises in the second act. The problem is her surprises are contrived and only create more questions than answers. Paul is a sweet man, who takes a shine to Mary Anne, only to recoil when certain facts about her past become clear, then completely reverses himself just in time for the final curtain. I suspect this couple’s third act will not be a happy one. And so it goes, again and again. Penny behaves uncharacteristically with her mother, another secret is tossed our way, and Penny’s final moments brings a tear but it isn’t really earned. It happens because Cherry Jones can turn mush into gold, and it’s she we are touched by, not Agnes as written. As written, much of the second act could be a daytime TV serial.
Pam MacKinnon’s direction allows the material to unfold smoothly, and the play is structured in some dozen scenes; when one is over, the lights dim, and we are into the next. It’s somewhat cinematic in this manner, but it works, and she and the playwright keep us interested in this particular enclave until the play begins to twist and turn in ways that only serve to let us know that revenge is afoot in a play that is fed up with all the years of abuse male writers and directors have been flinging at women. There’s not a man in this play, on or off stage, for whom any of these characters have any use.
Yet the cast headed by Ms. Jones, and supported by Zoe Kazan, Cherise Boothe and Morgan Saylor, bring depth and color to their ladies. And Patch Darragh, as the lone male, is right on in depicting a man out of his depth in the world of women, no matter how hard he tries to appeal to them. But he too, following his author’s directions, finds himself totally manipulated by her.
I was absorbed by much of the setup. I was disappointed in the conclusions reached. Of course it’s always a treat to spend a couple of hours with Cherry Jones (and in this case, with her cast as well), even if, to me, they remain Six Characters (one offstage) In Search of A Play.
When We Were Young and Unafraid is at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th Street, NYC.
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