‘Young and Unafraid’ set amid turbulent times

In this Ensemble Theatre production, Agnes operates a bed and breakfast that serves as a remote shelter for abused women in an era when such protections were not generally available.

Mar 1, 2017 at 12:37 pm

click to enlarge L-R: Tess Talbot, Delaney Ragusa and Christine Dye - Photo: Ryan Kurtz
Photo: Ryan Kurtz
L-R: Tess Talbot, Delaney Ragusa and Christine Dye
Currently receiving its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, Sarah Treem’s 2014 play, When We Were Young and Unafraid, provided a flashback for me. It’s set in 1972, the year after I graduated from Oberlin College. The Pop recordings that director Drew Fracher has chosen to warm up the audience before the show and during intermission, as well as to cover scene changes, comprise a soundtrack of tunes that take me back to my younger self: Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Different Drum” and Carole King’s “Beautiful” invoke a bygone era.

It was a tumultuous time: The Equal Rights Amendment promised better treatment for women, Roe v. Wade was working its way through the courts, Richard Nixon was preparing for a second term as the Watergate scandal began to unravel his presidency. Treem’s play swims in those treacherous, historical waters, which feel all too similar to today’s political turmoil. It’s about Agnes, who operates a bed and breakfast on a secluded island off the coast of Washington state. In fact, it’s a physically remote shelter for abused women in an era when such protections were not generally available — or protected.

At ETC, actor Christine Dye plays Agnes with pragmatic, likeable candor and good humor as she bakes muffins and holds forth in her comfortable kitchen. Agnes knows her clandestine service presents some risk for her 16-year-old daughter Penny (thoroughly believable Delaney Ragusa), a budding feminist. But Agnes’ own slowly revealed history is such that she feels compelled to help vulnerable women because “everybody deserves a chance.”

Additional characters underscore messages and define perspectives common four decades ago. Mary Anne (Kat McCaulla), horribly abused and requiring stitches in her face, clings to a shred of dubious, ill-advised desire for her violent husband. She also coaches Penny to “catch a man” with flirtation and submerged intelligence.

Bursting in from the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum is feisty Hannah (Tess Talbot), an ardent politico searching for a “separatist lesbian” community.  Talbot gives Hannah a sprightly air that makes you think the character isn’t quite as committed to the cause as she claims. 

The only male character is bland Paul (Zak Schneider), a B&B guest escaping from a failed marriage and making anemic attempts at songwriting. He demonstrates that all men aren’t heels, but he’s more of a device than a character.

As more is revealed about each of the three ancillary roles, it’s clear that Treem conceived them as attitudes and beliefs rather than as whole people. This lack of character development makes her play somewhat polemical (The title is, I suspect, ironic — but it doesn’t make much sense. Fear is an underlying element in the psyche of everyone onstage.)

Treem’s writing for such cable TV series as House of Cards has been highly successful. But it seems to have instilled in her an episodic mindset that doesn’t work so well onstage. Her two-act play is a series of choppy scenes that rise to moments of emotional tension followed by blackouts.

So the play isn’t perfect. But Drew Fracher’s direction keeps it engaging and swift, and Dye’s and Ragusa’s performances are so natural that audiences will like them immensely. Agnes and Penny are imperfect people who struggle with what we once called the Generation Gap. But they care about each other. Penny makes some ill-considered moves based on Mary Anne’s advice, and her behavior leads Agnes to emotional revelations that are unexpected but convincingly delivered by Dye. 

Even at the show’s emotional peak, there is significant evidence of everyday humanity. Hannah tries to comfort Agnes, whose patient demeanor fractures as she fears she’s driven Penny away. Dye’s performance in this scene is deeply moving, balanced by Talbot’s earnest awkwardness. Even when a play doesn’t work perfectly, such moments make a trip to the past very satisfying.

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID continues at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati through March 12. Tickets/more info: ensemblecincinnati.org.