Between Thursday, Jan. 30 and Saturday, Feb. 1, the Kenyon Dance, Drama, and Cinema Club presented its second production of the season, Sarah Treem’s “When We Were Young and Unafraid.” As the house lights dimmed at the Bolton Theatre, a cozy kitchen covered in 1970s-style decor appeared as a Joni Mitchell song faded into silence. A young girl entered and lit a single candle to read with before her mother entered to scold her for being awake. The audience watched as her mother began to make muffins on stage with real milk, eggs and flour. The baking in the show fell just short of actually producing the newly cooked muffins. “We did not have a working oven, although it was talked about,” said production stage manager Theresa Carr ’23. The realism of “When We Were Young and Unafraid” extended to every element of the play, beyond just the production design.
The play is set on an island in the Pacific Northwest and depicts the story of Agnes (Laura Stone ’23), who runs a bed and breakfast with her teenage daughter Penny (Talia Light Rake ’20), which also functions as a shelter for victims of domestic violence. When Mary Anne (Claire McPartland ’20) comes to Agnes’ home seeking shelter from her abusive husband, her traditional ideas begin to influence Penny’s perspective on relationships with men. Agnes increasingly grows concerned about the threat these ideas pose to Penny and Mary Anne’s safety. Meanwhile, a young feminist named Hannah (Elizabeth Iduma ’20) begins working for Agnes while she seeks a lesbian feminist commune and tries to convince Agnes to join the women’s liberation movement.
The production was presented in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of coeducation at Kenyon College. The show celebrates womanhood while exposing the explicit consequences of sexual violence against women. The play is set during a quintessential time for women’s educational progress as universities were increasingly becoming coeducational. Penny dreams of going to Yale University and is questioned by Agnes as to whether she would be allowed to go as a woman. The play’s setting also predates the verdict of Roe v. Wade and briefly mentioned the case as something that could create change for women.
Relationships between the women in the show are central to its exploration of 1970s feminism. Mary Anne represents the traditional housewife who has faced so much abuse throughout her life that she has learned to normalize it. Meanwhile, the radical feminist Hannah represents the growing women’s liberation movement. Throughout the play, Agnes is caught between moving forward with the growing women’s liberation movement or continuing to silently support the women in her own life.
As the story continues, Mary Anne is forced to reconcile with her trauma. She compromises her safety by reaching out to her abusive husband over the phone. While Mary Anne’s story and decisions are realistic for a domestic violence survivor, it is a difficult story to watch.
“From what I observed, it’s difficult to represent a story that is unpalatable to a modern audience on stage, as Mary Anne compromises her safety,” Carr said. “I think her character showed a lot about the modes of thought at play for an abuse survivor at that time.”
While “When We Were Young and Unafraid” explored complicated and painful subject material, the show tackled important issues in an honest manner. As the lights went up at the end of the show, the audience was left to contemplate the harsh reality of the pain faced by survivors of sexual violence.