“All women should see this show,” said a male audience member in the lobby, enthusiastically. “What about the men?” his female companion asked. “Well, it’s not for men,” he offered, to which the three women standing around him immediately said, “ALL MEN SHOULD SEE THIS SHOW.” “Definitely,” he added.
Keegan Theatre’s DC-area premiere presentation of Sarah Treem’s When We Were Young and Unafraid is not a political screed. It would not be a tenth as powerful if it were as simplistic as that; it does not readily boil down to “men abuse women” or “women need to stick together.” Such ideas – true enough, but presumably basic-level for your typical Washingtonian theatre-goer – are definitely present in the play. But it is about so much more, and the rainbow threads of its themes will weave through your head for days after, whatever your gender identity may or may not be.
Plus, it’s very funny.
You don’t have to take my word on that (as a non-woman reviewer) – oodles of laughs filled the Keegan’s space frequently enough to call that an objective observation. Certainly, it may not seem a setup ripe for humor. It is 1972, and Agnes (Sheri S. Herren) runs a bed and breakfast on a remote island off the coast near Seattle. She has a secret entrance, however, through which she brings in abused women. She gives them a safe house and a place to recover, in that all-too-recent time when laws were even less friendly towards abuse victims, and formal women’s shelters were rare.
In this house, over the course of about a week, Agnes finds herself surrounded by three other women, who all offer passionately different views on feminism and how women should respond to their society. There’s her daughter, Penny (Kaylynn Creighton), whose focus on getting into Yale over going to prom annoys her mother and harms her social life at high school. There’s mysterious Hannah (Nora Achrati), a traveling handywoman whose position of radical lesbian separatism challenges Agnes’ beliefs from the far left. And there’s Mary Anne (Jenna Berk), the latest victim to be housed in Agnes’ shelter, and whose views on men and women cannot be adequately summed up.
The humor comes from getting to know these women and their complex, clashing worldviews. With that knowledge, when Mary Anne rolls her eyes and smiles indulgently, or Hannah tries to refuse a pumpkin cardamom muffin, or Agnes tosses a “because I’m your mother” at Penny, we laugh as if these were our friends spouting inside jokes. Treem’s script, Marie Byrd Sproul’s sharp direction, the performances and design are all so rich with detail that the show gave my companion an acute case of nostalgia for the 70’s era kitchenware.
When We Were Young and Unafraid
closes July 8, 2017
Details and tickets
Some of that richness is perhaps attributable to Treem’s television writing experience (The Affair and House of Cards, among other well-received programs). Some of it comes from the depth of research evidenced in dramaturg Katie Baskersville’s lobby display, a thorough and enlightening overview of the history of feminism (neither I nor my female companion had realized we are now in the fourth wave, no longer the third). And plenty of it is due to the artistry of the team.
Great actors such as these, given such a bedrock of clean, snappy writing to work from, are able to put all their talents to work on the moment-to-moment lives of their characters. That’s part of the reason at least one of the actors was overheard describing this role as her “favorite” she’s ever played.
It is in those moments that we see more than we may have dreamt of seeing in a theoretically “political” play, if we are used to black-and-white messages. All four of these women are pulled in multiple directions, not just by each other but by their own competing desires and fears. They wrestle over the nature and future of women’s liberation and the directions of their lives. Sensitive songwriter Paul (Theo Hadjmichael), the final onstage character but not the only man of note in these characters’ lives, offers even more wrinkles and gray areas to ponder.
Occasionally, bold commentators proclaim the death of the kitchen-sink type of play that When We Were Young and Unafraid is; they say it is as dated as Matthew Keenan and Cindy Landrum Jacob’s rural 1970s set. But Treem and the fine folks at Keegan prove that a deeply human and empathic work can still offer surprises, and powerful challenges, and great theatrical entertainment.
But, again, don’t take my word for it: listen to my lady theatergoing companion, or those women in the lobby, who all say you should go.
When We Were Young and Unafraid by Sarah Treem . Directed by Marie Byrd Sproul . Featuring Nora Achrati, Jenna Berk, Kaylynn Creighton, Theo Hadjmichael, Sheri S. Herren . Set Designer: Matthew Keenan . Costume Designer: Liz Gossens . Set Dressing and Props Designer: Cindy Landrum Jacobs . Lighting Designer: Katie McCreary . Sound Designer: Jordana Abrenica . Hair and Makeup Designer: Craig Miller . Stage Manager: Juliana Parks . Assistant Director: Ty Hallmark . Dramaturg: Katie Baskersville . Produced by Keegan Theatre. Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.