“When We Were Young and Unafraid”: Student-directed play rekindles the spirit of ’70s feminism

Photos courtesy of Jon Crispin  Dale Leonhart ’19 as Paul and Grace Brunson ’19 as Mary Anne.

Photos courtesy of Jon Crispin

Dale Leonhart ’19 as Paul and Grace Brunson ’19 as Mary Anne.


A student-directed production of “When We Were Young and Unafraid” played at Rooke Theatre from Thursday, April 11 to Sunday, April 14.

The play by Sarah Treem takes place in the 1970s, specifically in the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade, and is set in a safe house for abused women looking to escape unhealthy relationships. Agnes, who runs the safe house with her daughter, Penny, takes in a woman named Mary Anne, who changes their monotonous lives when she encourages Penny to flirt and wear dresses, setting a precedent in the household.

The show features impressive technical feats including the use of a trap door that Mary Anne, played by Grace Brunson ’19, crawls through at the start of the show. Brunson had to wait below the stage for 20 minutes before her cue. The actors also “baked” onstage, making muffin batter and cookie dough, putting trays into an oven and pulling out baked goods minutes later. “It’s a tough show,” said director Abby Carroll ’19, regarding the technical elements. “There are just so many elements and pieces that go into it that make it a real challenge for anybody involved, and so I’m just so grateful for all the people working on this.”

The play is an examination of three different notions of feminism. Penny, played by Rebekah McBane ’21, is young and still learning about feminism; her ideas about gender are simple. Agnes, played by Kylie Levy ’21, is strict in her ideas and looks down on women who marry. Mary Anne wants the nuclear American lifestyle and defends her choice to prioritize a relationship over equal rights.

One audience member, Allison Doherty ’20, said she connected most with Mary Anne’s character. “She is not a weak woman that wants to crawl back to her abuser,” Doherty said. “She’s a woman that’s loved someone with PTSD and is dealing with the fact that she must walk away from a dangerous situation.”

Brunson sees the actions of her character as a result of gender norms. In some scenes, Brunson said, when Mary Anne defends her abusive husband, “The audience might think, ‘Why is she saying that?’ But it makes perfect sense to her I think because she’s been taught to believe that everything that goes wrong in her marriage is her fault, and that’s what women were raised to believe.”

The play is “very much a period piece,” Brunson said. The clothes, the language and the set all appeared to be a postcard from the ’70s. But without a doubt, the women of the show tell a story of feminism in the face of patriarchy that still rings true today.