From left, Stacy Ross, Liz Frederick and Zoë Foulks are excellent in Custom Made Theatre's “When We Were Young and Unafraid." (Courtesy Jay Yamada)

Women’s lib comes alive in sensitive ‘When We Were Young’

If Sarah Treem’s engaging 2014 drama onstage at Custom Made Theatre Co. seems time-warpingly retro at first, consider the title: “When We Were Young and Unafraid.” As perhaps Treem is suggesting, back in 1972, when the play is set, we women could not foresee the twists and turns of the next four and a half decades.

The playwright — known not only for theater but for TV scriptwriting (“In Treatment,” “The Affair”) — was not yet born when her play takes place, but she deftly examines, through several multi-faceted characters, that particular period in the development of what we now call the Women’s Movement.

Back then, a woman could actually say, to another woman, “Have you ever heard of Women’s Liberation?,” as one character says to another, snarkily. Because maybe she hadn’t.

“There’s something happening out there — a real revolution,” tough Hannah (a wonderfully funny and focused Renee Rogoff) tells muffin-baking single mom Agnes (the sublime Stacy Ross) after bursting rudely into the private quarters of Agnes’ bed and breakfast on remote Whidbey Island near Seattle, seeking employment.

Agnes may not be a self-declared revolutionary like Hannah (“There’s no feminism without lesbianism,” says Hannah staunchly, a common motto at the time), but she’s aware and selfless: her B&B doubles as a secret shelter for abused women.

And her teenage daughter, Penny (a wonderfully natural performance by Zoë Foulks), is equally compassionate, helping Agnes and committed to a life “free of patriarchal oppression.”

But she’s vulnerable, too, lusting after Tommy, the not-too-bright captain of the football team, who is not interested in smart girls like her.

With the arrival of the latest battered woman, Mary Anne (portrayed with great sensitivity by Liz Frederick), and Mary Anne’s practical and unenlightened advice to Penny about how to attract bad-news Tommy, the mother/daughter dynamics change.

And all four women, throughout the course of the two-act play, discover new things about themselves in relation to each other — although it’s excruciating to hear Mary Anne insist to the end how she still loves her abusive husband.

A solitary man, nerdy Paul (Matt Hammons, nailing a tricky role), who’s a B&B paying guest, has heartaches of his own, and his socially awkward interaction with the women unsettles the dynamics in other ways.

Director Tracy Ward’s fine-tuned production for Custom Made Theatre Company, with its excellent cast, resonates on every level.

Still, about that title: Does Treem really think we second-wave feminists were “unafraid”?

When We Were Young and Unafraid
Presented by: The Custom Made Theatre Company
Where: 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Feb. 9
Tickets: $25 to $45

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