One of the greatest experiences a theater can offer its audience is exposure to newer works by (sometimes) young playwrights. The Rochester theater community is lucky to have many theaters that do this consciously, working new plays or musicals into their seasons — developing the work onsite, even — and when the show creates a conversation, that's an added plus. This month, Blackfriars is presenting "When We Were Young and Unafraid" by thirty-something playwright Sarah Treem.
"When We Were Young and Unafraid" first opened in 2014, right around the time Treem was also working as an executive producer and writer for Netflix's "House of Cards" and Showtime's 'The Affair," among other projects. (Fair to say she's ambitious.) The plot is set in 1972, at a bed and breakfast located on an island off the coast of Seattle. Agnes, the owner of the bed and breakfast and single mother to one daughter, Penny, is also secretly operating the house as a safe place for victims of domestic abuse. In just under two hours, Treem's ironically named play examines weighty themes of domestic violence, sexual identity, gender roles, and much more.
On opening night, the show started off a little robotic, dialogue-wise, but Nancy Berg (Agnes) and Alexis Webber (Penny) eventually relaxed into a natural chemistry. It was soon apparent that the whole cast shared this chemistry, which made watching the five-person ensemble truly enjoyable. Director Kerry Young generally works with comedic material, a fact that likely aided her as she worked with the cast to navigate the emotional gravity of the play. Collectively, the cast delivers a graceful and professional performance that allows the audience to be absorbed in the show itself, and not distracted by sub-par acting. It would be very easy to play 2D characters due to the challenging nature of the material, but not a single member of the ensemble does that.
In the role of Agnes, Berg is a wonder, alternating between warm and standoff-ish — the kind of person who's capable of great love but has also experienced great hurt in life. As her daughter Penny, Hilton High School senior Webber deftly portrays a hormonal teenage girl who's grown up faster than others her age. Both women are onstage most of the show, and they don't appear to miss a single cue.
As domestic abuse victim Mary Anne, Abby Kate Herron keeps a masterful control of her emotions: her account of her abuse near the end of the play is chill inducing in its power. Misty Lynn Macey provides much-needed comic relief in the show as Hannah, a handy hobo who stops by en route to a separatist feminism commune. Rounding out the show is Colin Pazik as Paul, a kind, hippie musician who's also on the run (sort of) from his domestic life. (Pazik even does some singing and guitar playing.)
At times, the content of the production is so difficult that audience members might wish they could have a swig from the whiskey bottle on set — but the play contains a necessary conversation, and one the cast is fully committed to having. There are some things that have changed since the 1970s — then, women's liberation (which some credit as the beginning of modern feminist thinking) had been underway for a decade, and eventually led to policy change regarding gender equality in the workplace.
When the team at Blackfriars picked the show for their 2018-19 season, they couldn't have imagined how (even more) culturally relevant it would be, and it's possible not even Treem imagined that when she wrote the script several years ago. Ultimately, these issues have been going on for a long time. Domestic abuse has thrown its ugly shadow over the lives of women, men, and children as long as domesticity has been a concept. It's interesting, here, to view the issues not through lens of the #MeToo movement or #LeanIn, but during a time when Americans had less access to information and therefore, movements were even more action-oriented.
For audience members who are willing to be challenged and uncomfortable, "When We Young and Unafraid" offers a beautiful reward. It's a show that should have full seats every night, so that the hard conversations in the show will continue to be talked about.
Blackfriars will feature two post-show panels with representatives from RESTORE, Willow Domestic Violence Center, and RESOLVE. Impact Interactive, an organization that provides teaching and training through theater, will moderate the panel discussions, which examine about how the thematic issues of the play are at work in the Rochester community. One panel took place on March 25, and the other happens April 8.