Truth be told, I am really quite taken with the talents and stage presence of Cherry Jones. I would not by choice miss anything in which she appears; and when you get right down to it, so soon after our North Carolina visit, she’s the real reason I have ventured back into the streets of New York for my biannual theatre binge. I was in time to catch her in the final performance of When We were Young and Unafraid. The play was written by veteran TV writer Sarah Treem (House of Cards), and produced by MTC (the Manhattan Theatre Club) at City Center’s Stage 1. … All impressive credentials. Catchy title too. How could I go wrong?
Miss Jones was of course magnificent. Simply by being there she leant gravitas and credibility to the play, although the material offered no great challenge for her. Zoe Kazan, Elia’s granddaughter, was also present and did a fine job, as for that matter did the rest of the cast. So why am I not waxing enthusiastic?
The story happens in 1972 in a safe house for battered women on an island somewhere out in Puget Sound, which doubles as a B&B run by Jones’ character. It’s a throwback to the kitchen-sink dramas of the 70’s, when we were all oh so naïve. Looking back now on women’s issues of the day, you can’t help but be impressed by how far we have come in acknowledging the need for such shelters, and in recognizing the existence of abortions, and lesbians, and racism, all of which figure heavily into the plot. But this audience was well ahead of the predictable characters in the play. So the question is, what does the play have to tell us about today?
And the answer is, “Not a whole lot.” As a set piece, it’s fine, but perhaps primarily useful to historians and sex educators. Treem goes out of her way to include all the appropriate facts and cliché’s from the 70’s, but the play seems more about the speeches than the characters. It’s as if each character — the victim, the black lesbian, the “daughter,” the guest, and the hostess — were in her own play. Okay, so there IS one man in the cast, but he almost doesn’t count. The two nasty males most feared and loved never actually appear in the play, and the one who does is a wimp. Men definitely do not come out on the bright side in this play.
Having said all that, the play does provide some poignant dialogue, and manages considerable suspense. It also raisees some important issues. But coming as they do near the end of the play, almost as afterthoughts, they require much more attention: Why do we human beings hide behind seeking salvation for others when we can’t even manage our own needs? Why is it so easy to confuse passion with power, and control with love? Why do women stay with and continue to love men who violently abuse them? Why do men beat women? Surely, having raised such issues, the playwright owes us a deeper exploration than “It must be because they have PTSD, so it’s OK.” … Maybe in the next rewrite.