Cherry Jones heads up a first-rate cast in “When We Were Young and Unafraid,” a provocative if loosely constructed play by Sarah Treem that looks back with pride (and a hint of horror) to gender politics in 1972. The mismatched residents of a women’s shelter on an island off the coast of Washington seem poised for ideological battle. But something — perhaps the scribe’s day job as a writer-producer of “House of Cards” and other shows — derails the drama, which loses focus and momentum, fragmenting into mini-dramas that resemble episodes in a series that might not be renewed.
If nothing else, Treem’s play could serve as a teaching tool for a generation of girls who need reminding of their grandmothers’ contributions to women’s rights. In 1972, the modern-day feminist movement was in its second stage, when the politics of “women’s lib” had turned from demands for economic parity to action on social issues like physical abuse and reproductive rights. The ban on women practicing law had been recently lifted, but Roe v. Wade was still a year off.
In this context, it’s easy to identify the women who find their way to the clandestine women’s shelter that a former nurse named Agnes (in a perfect performance from the perfectly cast Emmy and Tony winner Jones) runs from her modest bed and breakfast. (The place is all kitchen and freshly baked muffins, in Scott Pask’s rustic design.) They’re all character types, to be sure, but well-drawn and articulate and capable of being transformed into individuals by the terrific cast assembled by savvy helmer Pam MacKinnon (a Tony winner for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”).
Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan, good as gold), who arrives in the middle of the night with a face so battered she needs stitches, is the familiar knocked-down-beaten-up wife who finds the courage to leave her husband, but can’t stay away from him because the sexy brute is such a charmer.
Hannah (the overly committed Cherise Boothe) is the young-black-radical-lesbian warrior who belongs to a sisterhood chapter called the Gorgons (who says lesbians have no sense of humor?) and, spouting the party line, does her best to indoctrinate Agnes into the separatist movement.
As a nurse who lost her license for performing abortions, Agnes is our true, natural-born hero, and really doesn’t need the agit-prop lectures. But, in a scene played with great delicacy by Jones, Agnes is forced to agree with Hannah that, yes, she’s very lonely, and yes, it might be nice to talk to a healthy grownup — or at least, someone who doesn’t need her mouth stitched up before she can hold a conversation.
There’s one male character in the play, a tourist named Paul who has a secondary, purely mechanical role to carry off. But he has hidden depths, and as played by Patch Darragh, who has made a solid career of being likeable, he’s a nice guy to have around.
The other female on these premises is Agnes’s 16-year-old daughter Penny (Morgan Saylor, making a stage debut to be proud of), who seems to be a sensible kid studying hard to make it into Yale. One does wonder, though, how the sadness and hurt that her mother’s guests bring into the house might affect her when she’s older.
Penny shows a streak of girlishness when she confesses her crush on the captain of the football team to Mary Anne, who instructs her in all the manipulative feminine wiles she’ll need to catch this boy or any other. Dramatic conflict threatens to happen when Penny loses her wits and decides that she’d rather run off with the football hero than graduate and go to Yale. But Penny’s crisis is so out-of-character that her dramatic moment hits the wall, as do other mini-dramas that are well-written and artfully engineered, but fragmented — waiting, perhaps, for one more trot around the new-play development circuit (after the Ojai Playwrights Conference and Sundance) to pull themselves together into a cohesive plot.