When We Were Young and Unafraid

A play about women, domestic violence and abuse, set in one kitchen location in 70s America…but this isn’t the Deep South and these are different crimes of the heart. Playwright, Sarah Treem, transports us to Whidbey Island off the coast off Washington State; the year is 1972 with America in the midst of second wave feminism and the Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs. Wade still a year away.

The kitchen in question belongs to a bed and breakfast that also serves as a safe house. Matthew Keenan’s set is rich in detail and looks lived in and welcoming. The angle of the stage right wall allows light to pour in through the window and along with the staircase leading to an unseen second floor it allows our imagination to picture the world beyond our stage. There are four locations to draw the action downstage with an armchair, a table and chairs, an island with stools and the door with a telephone on the wall next to it. Most of the plot unfolds in these spots with the rear of the stage used more functionally (to make coffee mostly) and the design works very well. The irony of the location as a backdrop for this story of women’s lib is not lost as the protagonists are at their most comfortable while baking muffins and cookies.

In the opening scene, the mother/daughter dynamic between Agnes (Sheri S. Herren) and Penny (Kaylynn Creighton) is quickly established.  Agnes is the owner of the B&B and Herren plays her in an unselfish down to earth manner that allows others the opportunity to explore the full range of their characters emotions around her. Her delivery allows the dry sense of humor of Agnes to shine through and in a rare moment when her emotions are needed to get the better of her it’s one of the most truthful moments in the play. Creighton gives an excellent performance throughout, navigating smoothly between surly and sarcastic and innocent and vulnerable, as Penny deals with the confusion of a teenage girl who has grown up around so many abused women.

Mary Anne (Jenna Berk) is the latest woman to arrive seeking accommodation and the help of Penny. Berk plays the disconnected moments of the character convincingly and the scene where she passes on her ‘wisdom’ to Penny on how to get a boy to ask her out is truly unsettling. We’re never supposed to feel comfortable enough to like Mary Anne and Berk walks that line well, but it is her reactions to the triggers that force her to relive the horror of what she has endured that don’t feel genuine. Her vocal delivery and physical performance in these moments unfortunately just don’t work.

Hannah (Nora Achrati) arrives looking for work and declaring that the future of feminism can only be achieved by stopping having sex with their oppressors and becoming lesbians. Looking and sounding like Huckleberry Finn’s big sister, Achrati steals the show with her southern drawl and wonderful comic timing. There is heart and honesty in her work that make it a truly winning performance. Tom Hadjimichael plays Paul, the only man in the play, and he portrays just a hint of a potential darkness under the charm the playwright warns us about to leave us guessing throughout as to his true nature.

Director, Marie Sproul, needed to drive the dialogue more, especially in the opening scenes. The pacing feels like people taking turns to speak and because of that the conversations lack a certain authenticity. There is unnecessary movement in some key moments and the best example of this is where Mary Anne realizes just where her advice has taken Penny. This intense moment and connection between characters is broken by a cross and counter where simple eye contact and standing their ground would have been so much more powerful. The scene transitions are handled well and Jordana Abrencia’s sound design moves us throughout the days as popular 70s tunes give way to sounds of crickets or bird song.

Ultimately the twists in the plot are not strong enough to justify the amount of setup in the first act – but that is a flaw in the writing not the production. Taking on and shining a light on these issues makes this work worthwhile and important and the performance of Nora Achrati is worth the entrance fee…if you pay the right price for your ticket.

#tothepoint Rating 67/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $45

Value Rating: -$11

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this production at $34. Tickets are available on Groupon and Gold Star for $28 making the show good value for money if you can grab this deal. When We Were Young and Unafraid continues at the Keegan Theatre until July 8th.