'When We Were Young and Unafraid': Theater Review

Cherry Jones in When We Were Young and Unafraid - P 2014
Joan Marcus

Cherry Jones in When We Were Young and Unafraid - P 2014

An engrossing drama that ultimately lacks the clear-sighted sense of history implicit in its title.

Cherry Jones, Zoe Kazan and Morgan Saylor ("Homeland") play three generations of women wrestling with gender roles in the feminist era in "House of Cards" writer Sarah Treem's play.

NEW YORK — When We Were Young and Unafraid is set in 1972, the year leading up to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights, just as second-wave feminism was cresting. But when asked if she feels hopeful that the times are changing, the character played by Cherry Jones responds, "They'll change back." If this new play by Sarah Treem, a writer on In Treatment and House of Cards and creator of Showtime's forthcoming The Affair, had a similarly perceptive grasp of its issues — both then and now — it would be trenchant theater. Instead it loses its way after a promising setup, drifting into television-style melodrama, despite fine work from the cast of Pam MacKinnon's polished production.

In Jones' first stage appearance since her Tony-nominated Broadway turn as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, she plays Agnes, an infinitely grounded former nurse from Tennessee who runs a small bed and breakfast that doubles as an underground shelter for abused women on an island off the coast of Seattle. Her mission to provide a refuge is informed less by politicized views than by an innate caregiver instinct and a fundamental understanding of the traps awaiting women in unhealthy relationships.

By contrast, Agnes' 16-year-old daughter Penny (Morgan Saylor), having witnessed the results of domestic violence her entire life, has absorbed her share of feminist rhetoric. When Agnes expresses regret that she missed her prom, Penny snaps back, "That's because you grew up in a time where women measured their self-worth by their desirability. I am happily free of that systematic oppression and do not need to attend some sort of bastardized summer solstice ritual where I am paraded around like a sheep in order to absolve myself for having a vagina."

PHOTOS Tony Awards 2014: The Nominees

If that sounds didactic, it's meant to. The character is a smart young woman determined to carve out a life beyond the roles traditionally assigned to her gender, yet to some degree she's still an impressionable youth. She's the opposite of girly, guy-worshipping Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan), a 25-year-old wife who turns up at the shelter with a black eye and a beat-up face after being brutalized by her drunken husband. But when Penny reveals an interest in the captain of the school football team, Mary Anne starts sharing dating advice, causing her to rethink her priorities.

Treem expertly lays the groundwork for an intriguing dynamic as each woman's perspective is challenged. But while the playwright is strong on dialogue and character detail, she's less assured at guiding the drama with an invisible hand. The play becomes increasingly unfocused as urgent questions arise: Will Mary Anne succumb to her weakness for danger and slink back to her husband for further mistreatment? Or will she accept the overtures of mild-mannered B&B guest Paul (Patch Darragh)? And is that seemingly sensitive music teacher, who has been dumped by his wife for being not man enough, really a better option? Will Penny forget her plans to go to Yale and elope instead?

VIDEO Tony-Nominated Actress Roundtable: Watch the Uncensored Interview

Gina Gionfriddo's 2012 Rapture, Blister, Burn is a good example of a contemporary work that reflects on how women's choices have or haven't evolved since the consciousness raising of the early 1970s. Without much of that play's humor, Treem goes back to that point in time to less persuasive effect. The takeaway becomes increasingly unsatisfying as the drama weighs the actions and attitudes of its three principal characters, occasionally in overwrought speeches.

Agnes also is prodded in different directions by the arrival of Hannah (Cherise Boothe), an African-American with a power 'fro and a tool belt, who rages against male hegemony on her way to join a lesbian separatist community called Womynland. But this character and her forthright opinions dilute rather than fortify the thoughtful play's point of view.

A Tony-winner in 2013 for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, MacKinnon is a gifted director of actors who steers things along with a serious sense of purpose on Scott Pask's naturalistically detailed set. But she can't escape the play's encroaching soapiness — especially as a late, shocking revelation is introduced — or the inconsistency of some of its characters' behavior. There are rewards nonetheless in watching Jones portray a woman whose personal history and strength are etched between her words, while Kazan strikes an audacious balance between victim and bad-news troublemaker, and Saylor, best known as Brody's petulant daughter on Homeland, makes a confident stage debut.

Cast: Cherry Jones, Morgan Saylor, Zoe Kazan, Patch Darragh, Cherise Boothe
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Playwright: Sarah Treem
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Russell H. Champa
Music & sound designer: Broken Chord
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club