On Saturday evening, Custom Made Theatre Company put on a spectacular performance of playwright Sarah Treem’s “When We Were Young and Unafraid.” The warmly lit stage was set as a safe house, one specifically shielding victims of domestic violence. The play follows Agnes (Stacy Ross) and Penny (Zoe Foulks), a mother and daughter who help an abused woman named Mary Anne (Liz Frederick) get back on her feet.
Raising awareness about the brutalities of domestic violence is evidently the main focus of this play, and it is a righteous and necessary goal indeed. The play is set in the 1970s, when domestic violence was often ignored and brushed aside as a private matter — the Violence Against Women Act, which recognized domestic violence as a federal crime, was not passed by Congress until 1994. The narrative reminds the audience of the long and arduous battle fought for the sake of women’s rights. Although depicting situations from decades ago, the delivery and the effortless flow of the script make the play thoroughly relatable and familiar. For instance, Agnes and Penny’s quippy banter about high school is a conversation that can be witnessed in the average household.
Treem succeeded in creating an atmosphere of extreme modernity, thus permeating the sense that domestic violence and revolutionary feminism are issues that still need more attention and publicity today.
Throughout the play, Agnes’ friend Hannah (Renee Rogoff) advocates for forms of radical feminism that were born in the ‘70s. The verisimilitude in the play is subtle yet astonishing. Constant mentions of the women’s liberation movement and Hannah’s passionate monologues about political lesbianism help educate the audience on modern feminist culture. Both the script and the character of Hannah reveal deep and thorough historical research, making the play informative, thought-provoking and applicable.
On the other hand, Mary Anne is a direct foil to Hannah. If Hannah represents the future of feminism, Mary Anne most likely represents traditional patriarchal values that often enslaved women at the time. Despite the fact that she was abused, Mary Anne still seems to believe that the only way to survive is to submit to and please the man in her life. Agnes gently teaches her that she can always say no. Although Mary Anne’s character is extremely realistic, her decisions in the play and the resolution of her character arc, which is shrouded in mystery, might make the audience believe that she intentionally puts herself in danger. But through subtle hints in the script about her background, the attentive audience is able to recognize the signs of prolonged abuse that have conditioned her to behave in such a self-destructive manner.
Mary Anne tells Penny that she never skipped school because she was afraid that her father would beat her. In a previous scene, she speaks about her abusive husband John and how he could be so charming that he was able to make her father laugh. She further elaborates that amusing her father was not an easy thing to do. Her father was also clearly abusive, and John was able to gain his approval. Mary Anne relays this story as if it were a sign that John would be a good man, but in reality, this anecdote reveals a fatal mistake: Mary Anne’s standard for a good man is simply what she is used to. She saw her mother be abused by her father and thus, sees that as the standard relationship.
Furthermore, Mary Anne leaves Agnes’ safehouse with Paul (Matt Hammons), whose character displays many flaws. Paul boasts about himself often and uses derogatory terms such as “dirty hippie” and “commie.” He even gets frustrated at Mary Anne for refusing to kiss him and eventually pressures her into oral sex. Neither of them seems to understand the concept of consent. Throughout the play, there are red flags littered all over that indicate Paul is not a good guy, yet Mary Anne still chooses to leave with him — a sad sign that she will perhaps fall into another unhappy relationship. These minute details in the characterizations of the men she grew up with help the audience understand that Mary Anne is not the one to blame. She sits alone in the dark as “Killing Me Softly with His Song” plays in the background, and her mere lonely silhouette could make a demon weep.
By bringing to life characters who possess extremist views and contrasting them with each other, “When We Were Young and Unafraid” sheds light on various social issues that are still unresolved. The fight is far from over.
“When We Were Young and Unafraid” will be playing at Custom Made Theatre Company until Feb. 9.
Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].