Five-time Tony nominee Cherry Jones follows up her breathtaking performance as Amanda Wingfield in the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie with another powerful turn in Sarah Treem’s When We Were Young and Unafraid, but the two-time Tony winner (Doubt, The Heiress) ends up being much better than the play itself. Jones stars as Agnes, a determined woman running a bed and breakfast in 1972 on a small island off the coast of Seattle. In addition to serving vacationing guests, Agnes and her teenage daughter, Penny (Morgan Saylor), also secretly house and help battered women, protecting them from their abusers while nursing them back to physical and mental health. One day a terrified Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan) knocks on the door, her face beaten to a bloody pulp. Agnes offers her temporary asylum as long as she promises not to contact her husband, and soon Mary Anne and Penny, a bookish girl who wants to go to the prom with the captain of the football team, are bonding, discussing life and love. That part of the play works extremely well, treating a difficult subject with tenderness and humor.
However, Treem, who has written such previous plays as A Feminine Ending and The How and the Why and for such television series as House of Cards and In Treatment, tries to do too much, losing focus, particularly by introducing the wholly unbelievable characters of Hannah (Cherise Boothe), a brash black lesbian spouting revolutionary platitudes, and Paul (Patch Darragh), a wimpy white singer-songwriter who is instantly attracted to Mary Anne. The Manhattan Theatre Club production, more than ably directed by Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), ultimately fails in attempting to examine the women’s rights movement from too many sides, getting lost in heavy didacticism and moralizing and losing its initial firm footing in reality. But Jones is still a marvel to watch, her every movement filled with nuance, eliciting solid support from Kazan (A Behanding in Spokane, The Exploding Girl) and Homeland regular Saylor in her affecting stage debut.