In an age when Planned Parenthood is being defunded, men are determined as ever to limit a woman’s dominion over her body and the President of the United States has bragged about grabbing unsuspecting women, it might seem that a story about a safe house for abused women is a fitting modern play. But as depressing as that thought is, modernity is not the case with Sarah Treem’s When We Were Young and Unafraid.
In 1972, more than two decades before the passing of the Violence Against Women Act, a maternally warm and middle-aged Agnes runs an out-of-the-way bed and breakfast on a Washington State island. In addition to plying her guests with muffins and doling out well-meaning but socially out-of-touch advice to her budding feminist teenage daughter, Penny, Agnes offers secret refuge to victims of domestic violence.
Attempting to address themes of rape, battered-wife syndrome, sexism, misogyny, parental providence, sexual awakening and the pressures of adolescence, Treem (co-creator of the television show The Affair) brings three visitors into Agnes and Penny’s home. Mary Ann is 25 and beaten black and blue but still carrying a torch for her husband. Hanna, a militant and mouthy black lesbian, is looking for work so she can gather enough money to join the nearby all-female commune. The only man in the play, Paul, shows up as a paying guest trying to forget his recently hippie-turned wife, who recently left him.
If you squint really hard, you can see how Treem intends each of these intruder guests to profoundly affect Agnes and Penny. We can even see shades of the social commentary Treem is trying to impart. What we don’t see is a script that stays on a plausible track or deftly drawn characters able to punctuate the devised melodrama with meaning.
But it all starts off so well.
In a suitably rustic kitchen of painted wood and wicker (set design by John W. Stevens), Treem reveals a family butting up against generation gap and social change. We appreciate that Agnes (played with a soothing, bedtime-story manner by Lisa Schofield) and Penny (a knockout Rachel Watkins) squabble about prom without devolving into a clichéd mother-daughter battle. Agnes urges Penny to think about going as Penny makes very clear her lack of interest in what she feels is nothing more than a bougie gender-divide ritual.
Treem sets the women up nicely, but quickly tests our belief in them as they either stay on an improbable course or perform a 360 thanks to the three visitors who happen upon them all at once. But it’s not just Agnes's and Penny’s questionable evolution that undermines the play. Treem takes her flip-flop narrative and tosses it to the guests as well.
We’ve all read accounts of battered women unable to quit their man, but Mary Anne (Jenna Morris having difficulty reaching the emotional top notes) swings all over the map. One minute she’s a shivering abuse victim, terrified of her husband and asking Agnes for help. Next she’s TMI-ing about how wet she gets just thinking of her husband’s touch. Mere minutes later she’s seducing, cold-shouldering and allowing herself further abuse at the hands of Paul (Austin Heps), whom Treem seems to include in the play for the sole purpose of allowing Mary Anne to bifurcate even further.
But it’s Penny’s transformation that’s the hardest to swallow. Feminism be damned, one night chatting with the boy-crazy and dating-savvy Mary Anne, and Penny goes from cramming to make it into Yale to gunning for the captain of the football team. Treem seems to be telling us that lurking inside every young, smart and independent woman is really just a girl who wants to know how to seduce a guy so that she too can jump on the arm-candy bandwagon. It’s insulting.
All through this, Agnes barely bats an eye. Sure, she’s concerned that Mary Anne may go back to her husband and yes, Penny’s sudden behavior is troubling, but what can she do? These women are their own keepers after all, she says. Talk about wet-noodle character development. Where is the fight in her we saw at the start? But then should we really expect more from Agnes when Treem has given her no political or social opinions other than wanting to help battered women because they’re “girls who don’t stand a chance”?
And, oh yeah, there’s Hannah (Miriam Okafor), the young black lesbian feminist. Not oh yeah, a character like this should be an afterthought, but oh yeah, because Hannah is made to be utterly superfluous in this already unnecessary story. She talks about the social change causing women to unite, she makes a wildly improbable pass at Agnes and she stomps around in heavy boots. Shame on Treem for this one, for barely allowing Hanna to transcend being gay and angry as her main personality traits.
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With a script so hole-ridden, it’s hard to fault director Bob Maddox for the show’s flat landing. You work with what you got and in the case of Watkin’s Penny, Maddox at least manages to tease out a bright spot performance. But he falters when the drama ramps up or dissipates. Screaming/crying moments feel overly constructed, and Agnes’s come-what-may vibe drags everything down despite the overwhelmingly cheery and audience-hunger-inducing smell of cinnamon coming from the muffins she’s baked.
And yet, for a small suburban company, we have to give credit to Theatre Southwest for continually putting on shows that aren’t your typical feel-goodies. Its programming is often full of challenging and provoking work. Work that affords many female roles on its stage.
So while When We Were Young and Unafraid may have been a poor choice, let’s celebrate the choice not to back away from difficult subject matters and hope that next time, the script does Theatre Suburbia's intentions better justice.
When We Were Young and Unafraid continues through June 17. 8944 Clarkcrest. For tickets, call 713-661-9505 or visit theatresouthwest.org. $16.