Sarah Treem’s “When We Were Young and Unafraid” is set in 1972, a cusp of a year for women in America. Second-wave feminists were raising voices about reproductive rights, sexual assault, and domestic violence; and Roe would be decided the next year. But not everyone was on the same page about the feminist movement—certainly not women themselves.
Middle-aged Agnes (Christine Marshall) spends 1972 doing what she’s done all her adult life: harboring women who’ve suffered domestic abuse. Agnes has built a secret door into the kitchen of the bed-and-breakfast she runs, a cozy house on an island where she lives with her 16-year-old daughter Penny (Emma Mayberry). And one night, Agnes leads a shaking, badly beaten Mary Anne (Allison McCall) through that secret door.
Mary Anne’s arrival will challenge both Agnes and Penny in their thinking about what it means to be a woman in Treem’s 2014 drama, which is onstage now at Mad Horse Theatre Company under the direction of Whitney Brown.
In a plaid shirt, jeans, and a long braid, Agnes is capable, no-nonsense, and wry. She’s briskly unsentimental with Mary Anne and takes a wildly tolerant parenting approach with imperious, Yale-bound, dress-hating Penny, whom Mayberry makes alternately insufferable and gently vulnerable. We first meet Penny as she speed-reads “Mrs. Dalloway” and snaps patronizingly at her mother that she “can’t think of anything more bourgeois than going to the prom.”
Both Agnes and Penny believe in women’s rights and potential, yet both also show a startlingly automatic condescension toward Mary Anne. Agnes requires her to stay away from the guests until her face heals. “Your job,” Agnes tells her, “is to stay upstairs until you look normal again.”
And both Agnes and Penny express some callously generalized ideas about women like Mary Anne. “Most of you leave when he hits you in the face,” Penny comments with a jaded, arrogant off-handedness.
These dissonant notes between the women deepen as Penny starts receiving non-feminist dating advice from Mary Anne; as a B&B guest named Paul (Jared Mongeau) squirrels his way into the women’s kitchen; and as raucous young radical feminist Hannah (an entertainingly loose-cannon Savannah Irish) barrels in, preaching the gospel of all-women communities and the incompatibility of feminism with heterosexual sex.
“When We Were Young” arranges these characters in careful constellation, with characters representing second-wave feminism, both male and female resistance to feminist ideas, and the era’s emerging intra-feminist battles. At times, the script feels a bit like a theatrical rendering of a feminism survey course, and in reaching to connect everything dramatically, the plotting sometimes tilts the story toward melodrama.
But more affecting are the slow, intimate moments when we watch shifting tensions and affinities between characters, dynamics which the cast explores with nuance. Penny first assumes an absurdly maternal attitude toward Mary Anne, then opens up and even giggles before her like a dazzled younger sister.
As Mary Anne, McCall shape-shifts hauntingly between trauma and longing, between the demure compliance she shows Agnes and the sparklingly ego-feeding performance with which she showers Paul. Though she leans a little heavily into Mary Anne’s frequent PTSD-influenced physical tics, she finds a finely shifting balance in depicting a woman’s complex calculus about how to survive.
Perhaps the most disturbing scene in the play presents a sexual encounter between Mary Anne and Paul, whom Mongeau depicts in a deeply unsettling performance of male entitlement, mingling comedy with the ominous. I shivered to watch his finely calibrated mix of ingenuousness and manipulation, as his seemingly benign man-child neediness veered into volatile narcissism.
And Marshall delivers a standout performance as Agnes, superb in restraint and modulation. She shows us how stoically Agnes tamps down her effervescent love for Penny each time her daughter rejects her, and she lets us see both Agnes’ impatient assumptions about Mary Anne and her compassion. And as Agnes bakes muffins and observes all the people moving through her house, we can see her silently processing new information, dangers, and ideas about what women want and need. We can see in her eyes and brow how hard this work is.
Fifty years out from 1972, it goes without saying that the bodies of people with vaginas remain vulnerable to other people’s whims and convictions. In its most moving moments, “When We Were Young and Unafraid” seems to suggest that the only way forward starts with truly hearing what women have lived.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
More theater events in October
The vicissitudes of journalism take the stage this week at Good Theater, which opens its tenth anniversary season with “Lifespan of a Fact” (October 5 – October 30). This dramatic comedy involves an especially fraught aspect of the trad – truth – as a writer and a young fact-checker battle over one momentous essay. FMI: https://www.goodtheater.com/.
Hard frosts aren’t far off here in Maine, but at the Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine, Snow moves to a warmer place: In the bilingual play “Snow in the Jungle/Nieve en la Jungla” (October 8 – November 13), a young polar bear must leave her home in the arctic and move to the tropics. FMI: https://www.kitetails.org/snow-in-the-jungle.
Finally, tune into the stars and your destiny at Mayo Street Arts with the cross-disciplinary puppet exploration “Tarot Theater (The Major Arcana)” (October 15). Follow local bandleader and Shoestring Theater musical director Rion Hergenhan (who also comes from a long line of tarot readers) as he leads us on a musical, mystical journey through the Tarot deck. Stick around after the show, when Hergenham will offer an hour of Tarot and palm readings (tips encouraged!). FMI: https://mayostreetarts.org/2022/09/29/tarot-theater-the-major-arcana/
— Megan Grumbling