The play When We Were Young and Unafraid is sort of a local legend. Originally a smaller project workshopped in Ojai, it was eventually produced off-Broadway in 2014. Its author, Sarah Treem has gone on to do television, including writing for Game of Throne, I believe. The play itself is a well-structured, tightly written play set in 1972 about women's issues, featuring four strong women's parts and a token male role. Though set in the 70s it is more relevant today than ever.
One of its virtues is that it gives us some interesting historical perspective on some of those issues.
The play is set on Whidbey Island, a real island in the Puget Sound close to Seattle, in early 1972, before Roe vs Wade. Though the play is about serious issues, it is quite funny, sometimes at the risk of skimming over issues too superficially, or perhaps just revealing Treems at the time, latent talent for writing great television. This is not going to bother most audiences, on the contrary, the writing is solid, carrying the proceedings along admirably.
The play is set inside the home of a single mother, Agnes, with a 16-year old daughter, Penny. Agnes is running a secret shelter for abused women disguised as a bed and breakfast on an island with few residents. Penny is a dreamy future libber dreaming of getting into Yale.
As the play opens there is already an undercurrent of tension, or perhaps conflicting world-views, between Penny and her mother, but the real action soon gets heavier as a "guest", as they are called, arrives. Things get more complicated when Paul, a young, nosey, male boarder checks in, and Hannah, a more mysterious, outspoken dyke intrudes on her way to some sort of lesbian political cult that is evidently located somewhere on the island.
If this sounds somewhat improbable but entertaining, it is definitely the latter, but Treem's writing make it all seem a bit more reasonable than it deserves to be, which only helps propel the plot smoothly forward.
It helps immensely that this production is one of the strongest productions the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse has put on in recent years. Their first good move, beside picking this timely and well-written drama, was to get Jolyn Johnson to direct. Their second good move was to assemble a particularly strong cast. All four of the women are excellent.
Lynn Van Emmerik, coming off her recent work in Agnes of God, showing a solid understanding and preference for strong, meaningful drama, plays Agnes, the mother, again playing the character in the commanding role with the most responsibility, but ultimately revealing key flaws that help drive the drama forward. Van Emmerik is good at casting the kind of disparaging looks that say a thousand words and timing the key lines that call other characters' shenanigans to account. She has ample opportunities for both.
Rita Nobile gives us a fantastic Penny. She captures the body language and dipsy-seriousness of a sixteen year old girl with great aplomb. She is able to generate exceptional audience empathy which definitely helps the proceedings and would not be there in lesser hands.
Katie Rodriguez gives us an appropriately conflicted, compassionate Mary Anne, the guest and abused woman seeking shelter in Agnes's shelter. Rodriguez is well cast and gives us the multiple sides of her character in a believable manner.
Evan Proffer gives us an appropriately wimpy Paul, a potentially sleazy, failed husband and writer, a purposefully flawed male specimen to kick around and demonstrate how low a woman can go. And low they go. All to the good of the plot and message of this sharp little drama.
Finally, Julie Fergus gives an exceptionally strong performance as Hannah, the wayward dyke seeking lesbian political nirvana. She is also conveyor of a number of lines that presumably express the author's acserbic opinions of certain going--ons.
Now, as crazy as it may seem, this writer, having grown up and lived in Seattle in the late 60s and early 70s, and having spent much time with both residents of Whidbey Island and radical Puget Sound dykes [who were members of a politicized motorcycle club, not a cult, but small difference I suspect] can attest to the amazing authenticity of various aspects of this production.
Though some audiences may see Hannah as the least probable character in this play, I can tell you that Fergus's Hannah, down to the smallest details of her bra-less dressing, manners, and speech could have walked straight off a 1972 Washington State Puget Sound ferry and right into this play. She is right on, all the way down to her hair, plaid shirt, boots, and attitude. And she is hilarious, cutting through the bs of the other characters like a knife through butter.
Another point of authenticity is the set. It looks so much like a 1972 Puget Sound island kitchen that some of the pieces of furniture are exactly, and I mean exactly, the same as those I experienced personally in the 60s and 70s. The whole play and setting may be more in keeping with 1972 Vashon Island than Whidbey, but that is a difference that even most residents of Seattle of that era would miss.
All in all high fives to Erik Umali, who should be talked into doing sets more often, and Laura Comstock's costume design. Leigh Puhek, appropriately, once again does her lighting magic in a house that is not the easiest to work lights in.
Finally, kudos to the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse for bringing an important, serious, timely, drama to our local community and giving it such an honest and professional effort with so few resources. All in all, especially due to the strong direction and excellent acting, they have produced a relatively difficult play, one that many community theatres would not dare attempt, and made it look pretty good. No mean feat in community theatre. I expect it to get even better over its run as the cast gains confidence, for this is a play that would benefit hugely from the 30-plus dress rehearsals and early nights that a lot of professional companies enjoy, but no community theatre could possibly afford.
It is a well-written, enjoyable play put on by a hard-working cast and crew that deserves to be seen and appreciated, produced by an undeservedly underappreciated local community theatre. Check it out.
When We Were Young and Unafraid
By Sarah Treem
Directed by Jolyn Johnson
Starring Lynn VAn Emmerik, Katie Rodriguez, Rita Nobile, Julie Fergus, and Evan Proffer
With Erik Umali, set, Leigh Puhek, lighting, Laura Comstock, costumes
Produced by Camarillo Skyway Playhouse at the Camarillo airport
330 Skyway Drive, Camarillo
For tickets and dates contact 805.388.5716 or see skywayplayhouse.org_________________________________________________
(L to R) Julie Fergus as Hannah, Evan Proffer as Paul, Lynn Van Emmerik as Agnes
Photo Credit: Joe Orrego.