Playwright Sarah Treem is just so good she ought to be a Broadway staple. “Oh, a Sarah Treem play? Let’s go.” More, she ought to be in every rep, every regional, every little theater in the land. She’s so good, she makes little plays big, good actors wonderful, a good director a magician. And I am not putting a halo on her because she doesn’t deal in halos. She deals with people who are flawed even as you cotton to them. How do you do that? Yes, it’s in the performance, sure, but the performance would not be so heart catching if it weren’t sprung from the writing.
Take Agnes, played by the one and only Cherry Jones who has just finished enveloping us in the driven miasma that was the definitive Amanda Wingfield in the closing season’s extraordinary mounting of The Glass Menagerie. There she is, strong, capable, her feet on the ground, running her bed and breakfast on an island off the coast of Seattle in 1972. You can’t get much farther away and still be in these United States. Odd place for a bed and breakfast. And there she is, early in the morning, at her big, workaday prep table in her big, workaday kitchen canny designer Scott Pask has given us, making muffins from scratch for her bed and breakfast customers, as she obviously does, every day. Not too many muffins, though. Not too many customers. What’s a terrific woman like this doing so far off the beaten path?
And there, her daughter Penny (amazing Morgan Saylor) at the small, sturdy dining table, scrunched over her books, dressed to agonizing perfection by designer Jessica Pabst, awash in teenage tragedy, no date for that bugaboo rite, the prom. Who’d take this scrubbed, gawky, innocent nerd to a prom? Only a village idiot. And she wants, she yearns after the captain of the football team! We are in ordinary, ordinary territory but – how could we be? And how did this ordinary, sturdy home end up here? Ordinary? After Agnes gets her daughter, unwilling, off to school, once alone, Agnes throws back the large, old fashioned coil rug and lifts the cellar door which had been hidden underneath. Light spills out. We are securely in the clutches of playwright Sarah Treem.
Slowly, out comes trembling, terrified Mary Anne (extraordinary Zoe Kazan), her thin face a bloody mess. Agnes sits her down, offers her coffee. She would prefer whiskey. Mary Anne, 25, has run away from her husband. He’d never find her way out here. She’s been married for six years. This is the worst. Agnes gets her surgical kit. Agnes shelters battered, abused women. No one knows. Of course, Penny will have to know, she’s always had to know. But no bed and breakfast customers. The whiskey goes down too easily. Have our newly vested sympathies been led astray? She’ll have to stay, hidden, until her face is healed. Surprises are inevitable.
One of them is Paul (dead on Patch Darragh), the neediest nice guy you wouldn’t want to know, who’s found this bed and breakfast, and now, he’s found the private quarters of the owner but well, he had to talk, even if it’s a leaky faucet as an excuse.
Which, in a way, leads to Hannah (marvelous Cherise Boothe), a strapping young lesbian with an afro the size of a GE motor atop an old fridge. Who won’t take a handout. Wants to work. Won’t eat unless she can pay in labor. Has no money. Searching for the secret feminist community somewhere in the area. No job for her, Agnes does her own work. She sends her away.
You think. But somebody fixes Paul’s drip and it’s Hannah. And Agnes, hands full with Mary Anne – she is a hand full – and hands fuller with her suffering daughter Penny and the elusive hunk and the elusive prom, grudgingly accepts Hannah’s help, until Hannah gets amorous and Agnes repulsed, pushes her away. Hannah leaves on her own.
Playwright Treem stays way ahead of us and director Pam MacKinnon has a field day trolling out the surprises that coil around Treem’s simple, natural progressions with unsettling impacts, just as if they were meant to happen. Mary Anne, buoyant in her new found safety and Agnes’s whiskey, gives avid Penny seduction technique lessons guaranteed to capture even the captain of the football team and a date for the prom. Even better, she cannot resist breaking the basic rule Agnes has demanded: not to contact anyone. And things go awry. Flawed human beings can screw up the best laid plans.
Yes, it’s TV soap trap. Yes, it’s really good movie. And yes, it’s some of the best theater, because it’s the purest entertainment, storytelling, the hardest and the easiest thing to do, all in one. People are endlessly fascinating. All you need is Sarah Treem to let you in.
When We Were Young and Unafraid (through August 10, 2014)
Manhattan Theater Club, New York City Center – Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com