Friday, July 18, 2014

When We Were Young and Unafraid: Feminism in the 1970's

When We Were Young and Unafraid is a multifaceted look at feminism through the prism of different philosophies and generations converging in the early 1970's in the Pacific Northwest.  Despite a fascinating subject and time period, somehow the unconventional and truly unique characters in this play, written by Sarah Treem and directed by Pam MacKinnon, end up taking the backseat to the more predictable main stories.

Agnes (Cherry Jones) runs an "Underground Railroad"of sorts for battered women. A former nurse she shelters women in her B&B on an isolated island outside of Seattle. Sometimes her daughter, 16 year-old Penny (Morgan Saylor) must give up her room to the lost women. This week Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan) arrives with a smashed up face and a shaking hand, having left her husband John. Staying at the B&B is Paul (Patch Darragh) an oddball music teacher who can't stand the hippies taking over San Francisco.  In all this chaos, there is also the unexpected arrival of Hannah (Cherise Booth), a militant feminist looking for a lesbian enclave she's heard is somewhere on the island.

I have not seen characters like theradical feminist seeking refuge in a place called Womynland and the enigmatic leader of the shelter on stage before and those were the characters I most wanted to know about.  But the teen and her coming of age story and the abused woman struggling to take her next step carry much of the drama.  Even in those primary tales, we don't get substantially under the skin of any of the characters.  Mary Anne is the woman in a cycle of violence who's trying to understand her own desires. Penny is the young, feminist acolyte struggling to reconcile her dream of equality in a world that exists far from that ideal.  The characters are very specific but somehow the plot falls into some well-worn traps.

Nevertheless, the strong cast is doing some really interesting work.  Zoe Kazan provides a great deal of dynamism to the wavering Mary Anne.  Cherry Jones is this incredible oak tree of a character, giving Agnes unromantic and pragmatic clarity.  And she's surrounded by all these women full of passions, whether it is Hannah and her politics or Penny and her teen desires.  Patch Darragh as the milquetoast Paul, manages to be both lovable goof and minor league asshole in a world of major league ones.  Darragh teases out the savior and the creep in his character in delicate motions.


After all the gender-bending that's been on stage this season, the focus on a group of women, their sexual identities, and their various societal roles is refreshing. But for me, in some ways the most interesting part of the story, started to get good, just as it was ending.  I longed for a window into Agnes's character throughout and, in the end, seeing the chips in her strong veneer makes the journey worthwhile.  It's an intriguing world to spend some time in.

I received a complementary ticket to attend this show.

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