The Filigree Theatre’s latest offering, the Austin premiere of Sarah Treem’s “When We Were Young and Unafraid” (playing through Feb. 23rd at the Mastrogeorge Theater), brings to the surface the company’s dedication to feminist narratives in a play that explores the meaning of feminism to four different women.
“When We Were Young and Unafraid” is set on a remote island in the early 1970s, where a strong-willed woman named Agnes runs a bed-and-breakfast — alongside her smart, ambitious teenage daughter Penny — that secretly doubles as a safe house for abused women. Into this home comes Mary Anne, escaping from her abusive husband even though she clearly seems to retain desire for him. Almost immediately, Mary Anne begins to exert influence over Penny, shifting the girl's focus from getting into Yale to getting the captain of the football team to ask her to the prom. The story ticks on like this for a few scenes in an engaging but predictable way.
It isn’t until Treem introduces the play’s fourth woman, a kind of drifter/handywoman and lesbian separatist named Hannah, that the show truly comes to life. In part, this is thanks to the remarkable job by Michelle Mary Schaefer, a Deaf actress whose embodiment of Hannah’s strength and simmering rage truly comes to define the character. It's also because, at this point in the story, Treem veers away from the expected old-versus-young arc and takes a more complex, nuanced look at the ways in which these different women’s views of feminism affect their lives and decisions.
Mary Anne, portrayed by Laura Ray as constantly on the knife’s edge between control and breakdown, seems to have completely given herself over to traditional notions of male-focused femininity. She is caught between this destructive path and an awakening toward her own independent potential. This conflict becomes embodied by her flirtation with the sole male on stage, Paul (played with equal dollops of goofiness and creepiness by Ben Gibson). Mary Anne’s inner turmoil is further explored through the advice she gives to the young Penny (played by Allison Paranka), as she goes back and forth between explaining how to win a boy’s heart/libido and warning the teenager to stay focused on school and career. Penny, meanwhile, isn’t sure whether to trust her heart, mind or hormones, and latches onto Mary Anne as a form of rebellion against Agnes.
Agnes herself is at the core of this production, thanks in no small part to the remarkably stolid, controlled performance from Linda Bradshaw, whose quiet vision of strong women supporting each other provides a central pivot around which the other perspectives rotate. In her maternal concern for Penny and Mary Anne, and her unique flirtation with Hannah, she gives the story its beating heart.
With the exception of a teleprompter displaying the dialogue (a small part of Filigree’s larger commitment to making theater accessible), there’s absolutely no bells and whistles to this production. Director Jennifer Sturley puts the onus on her cast, with a bit of scene-setting help from Chris Conard’s naturalist lighting and set design and Jennifer Rose Davis’ period costuming.
Despite some moments of explosive emotion, “When We Were Young and Unafraid” is ultimately a quiet, thoughtful play that intertwines political and philosophical viewpoints about gender equality with individual story arcs. The text perhaps succeeds a bit more in the former than the latter, but Filigree Theatre’s production brings out the emotional content in a way that makes for a thoughtful, moving piece of theater.