Somber earth tones dominate the mood and the visual palette of Sarah Treem’s When We Were Young and Unafraid (at Custom Made Theatre through Feb. 9). Set in 1972 at a bed and breakfast on an island in the Pacific Northwest, the wood-paneled kitchen cupboards complement the forest green linoleum floor. Agnes (Stacy Ross) runs the place. She wears dark, no-nonsense corduroy pants accented with neutral-colored blouses and beige cardigans. Agnes is an ascetic, a secular nun who’s mastered the art of self-denial and self-sacrifice.
There are only two moments in the play where she can’t contain her emotions. One of them comes very late and the other very early during the first scene. When she finds out that her daughter Penny (Zoë Foulks) is reading Mrs. Dalloway for a homework assignment, Agnes hurriedly thumbs through the book to read her favorite passage aloud. After that single indulgence, she holds the rest of herself in check — unless she’s offering someone a freshly baked muffin. Then she lets slip a barely detectable half-smile. It’s the closest Agnes gets to feeling lightness or glee.
Late one night, Mary Anne (Liz Frederick) shows up at their door with a black eye and a split lip. The bed-and-breakfast doubles as a halfway home for battered women. As she starts to care for Mary Anne’s bruised body and battered soul, it makes sense that she keeps her emotions to herself. Agnes has to offer up hope to the hopeless. You can see Ross’ back stiffen when she approaches Mary Anne. Having given up her job as a professional nurse, she’s still determined to heal women who are in need.
With the arrival of two more supporting characters — Hannah (Renee Rogoff) and Paul (Matt Hammons) — Treem suggests larger themes. Hannah has appeared at Agnes’ door in search of temporary work. But she’s really on the lookout for an idyllic, all-female community nearby that sounds something like Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island. Their creed is that the ultimate expression of feminism is lesbianism. A woman who partners with a man will always be subjected to the needs of the patriarchy. Having heard about this place on the mainland, Hannah wants to become their latest recruit. In Paul, the only male character to appear, Treem creates the exasperating embodiment of every male narcissist. Hammons is effective at conveying the confusion of being a cuckolded husband while also exercising, without question, his white male sense of privilege. He makes it clear that Paul doesn’t understand the relationship between the former and the latter.
While Agnes is tending to Mary Anne’s needs, Penny’s teenage hormones are kicking in. She’s been a studious introvert up until now but she’s feeling an increasing pressure to attend the prom. Instead of taking in her mother’s more measured advice about who to invite, Penny turns to Mary Anne. From where the audience is sitting, this looks like a bad choice. For a time, Mary Anne regains some of her confidence when she talks about manipulating boys. Her recommendations seem to be helping when Penny captures the attention of a football player. What Penny doesn’t initially understand is that she’s taking advice from someone trapped in an abusive marriage.
The playwright emphasizes Mary Anne’s psychological damage as Paul tries to court her. He seems like a charming lightweight, a man puzzling through his recent separation. Then, as he flirts with the idea of desire, Paul thoughtlessly puts Mary Anne in her place. He is a creature of that era who’s been taught that a man’s needs come before a woman’s. Without having to think about it, he’s certain that men are superior to women. When he states these attitudes plainly, they carry an unpleasant sting. Watching Mary Anne’s willingness to accept Paul’s advances, despite being aware of how condescending he is, actually felt painful. It illustrated how much egregious behavior women had to tolerate (and still do) and how few options they had at the time, especially economically speaking, to extricate themselves from harmful relationships.
Which brings us back to Hannah’s idealized, manless society. After moving on from Agnes’ place, she finds that it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. This isn’t to say that Hannah gives up her sapphic desires, or that she’s in need of a man for anything in the foreseeable future. She comes to admire Agnes, instead of condemning her, for living an independent but not an exclusionary life. Agnes has used her intelligence, skill set and compassion in service to women in crisis, including, to the best of her abilities, the needs of her own daughter. Whether she is or is not a lesbian, or just someone who eschews romantic love of any kind, that’s not what fulfills her. Helping others, no matter what their circumstances, is Agnes’ — and Treem’s — idea of a fair and just society, a paradise island that exists in real life and not inside of a fogged in mythology.
When We Were Young and Unafraid, through Feb. 9, at The Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St., $30-$40, 415-798-2682 or custommade.org