It seems to be impossible not to like Cherry Jones. With her broad, open face, quick intelligence and aura of serenity, she defies you not to hand her your life savings, say, or elect her president. Certainly it’s been years since anyone resisted giving her a standing ovation. Little wonder, then, that the Manhattan Theater Club chose her to star in its latest production, a new play by In Treatment writer Sarah Treem called When We Were Young and Unafraid.
When exactly were we young and unafraid? Evidently in 1972, when the play opens on the homey kitchen of Agnes (Jones), a cheerful, maternal middle-aged woman running a bucolic bed-and-breakfast on a remote island in Washington state. She and her teenager Penny (Morgan Saylor) are comfortably squabbling about the merits of going to the prom. (Penny says she thinks it’s a waste of time. Agnes thinks she should have a dress at the ready, just in case.) But this interchange is interrupted by a brutal reminder of where even such innocent dating dreams can lead as Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan), a fragile young woman with a battered face, is spirited into the comfortable kitchen. For, as it turns out, this is no ordinary B&B, and Agnes isn’t just a jovial innkeeper. She runs an underground safe house for battered women escaping their partners, and her guests don’t just like her, they trust her with their lives.
Her guests can also upset Agnes’ life. As the play develops, the recovering Mary Anne starts to undermine the feminist practicality Agnes has tried to instill in bright, motivated Penny by teaching her feminine wiles to attract the attention of the football player she fancies. And when a Ti-Grace Atkinson-spouting handy-person named Hannah (Cherise Boothe) bursts onto the scene in search of a radical lesbian group called the Gorgons, Agnes’ placid existence is threatened on a new front.
Treem’s play should be applauded for its ambition in attempting to examine the conflicts and conundrums of vintage feminism. The trouble is, even as she animates these issues in the situations that face each character – Penny must decide if she can bear the lies that winning her crush apparently entails; Mary Anne navigates a rebound relationship with a man who may or may not be an improvement over her abusive but sexually exciting ex; and Agnes grapples with her own motivations and desires – the trio of experiences still feels formulaic, as though maiden, matron and crone (though Jones is a far cry from cronish) each are called upon to offer up a specific stage-of-life lesson.
Directed with clarity and precision by Pam MacKinnon, the play offers its talented ensemble plenty of opportunity to shine. Kazan, who plays Mary Anne as far more than just a manipulative man-trap, is scheming and sisterly when she schools Penny in seduction but isn’t sure about how to handle her own post-abuse relationship option when she meets the sedate but strange Paul (Patch Darragh), a cuckolded musician who may not be as safe as he seems. And Boothe does wonders in her more limited but refreshingly rabble-rousing role as a very different kind of disruptor in Agnes’ house of women.
Despite how clearly Agnes’ conflicts are outlined, Jones has the most dramatic meat to sink her teeth into here. Or it may just be that she, as always, does so well at making the most of what she gets. Her Agnes is both mundanely maternal and ferocious as she defends her wards – sometimes against themselves. And as we learn about Agnes’ doubts and secrets, Jones uncovers her complexity while staying true to the character she establishes in the first scene. While the play presents her revelations in somewhat histrionic fashion, Jones manages to make even Agnes’ confrontation with her own past – and with Hannah – seem organic.
There is a lot to be said for a drama that sets out to explore how three women are woken by feminism in different ways during the tumultuous 1970s. It’s just too bad that this one so often feels more like it’s just about feminism and not about women.