Sarah Treem does not have what you’d call a great play on her hands with “When We Were Young and Unafraid.” It’s set in 1972, when something called women’s lib was on the rise, and in a small Northwestern bed-and-breakfast, an ex-nurse named Agnes quietly takes in the occasional young woman who has fled an abusive husband. Once the smart, tomboyish, 16-year-old Penny puts on a pretty dress and, to Agnes’s surprise, gets the football captain to ask her to the prom, you know there’s suffering ahead.
Yet Treem unwinds a story you can’t shake, especially once the small cast in the Keegan Theatre production starts working the angles and attitudes of Treem’s increasingly interesting characters. This takes a while, except in the case of Kaylynn Creighton’s Penny. Hunched over homework at the rustic kitchen table, wearing an Army jacket (there’s a base nearby) while she slings light mother-daughter sarcasm at Agnes, Creighton’s offhand independence makes Penny instantly winning. You almost hate to watch a story where you feel pretty sure something bad is going to happen to this girl.
But that’s the 1972 that Treem draws: a time when these characters, on a small, no-frills island getaway, keep hinting at the larger women’s movement as “something going on out there.” All the action takes place in Agnes’s kitchen, which looks like the inside of a cozy cabin in Matthew Keenan’s effective design. You feel the isolation so acutely that it’s an instant laugh line when a woman named Hannah dryly observes, “It’s pretty rural out here.”
The outside world tumbles in most broadly in the figure of Hannah, a stereotype lesbian with a butch haircut, a tool belt and a mouthful of separatist rhetoric. She’s comic relief, not because you laugh at an overcooked caricature but because she delivers much-needed wiseacre observations. What initially seems like Hannah’s excess swagger becomes, in Nora Achrati’s expansive performance, a warm, wry streak that immensely benefits this drama.
The scarred face of the show belongs to a battered woman named Mary Anne, whose gashed forehead gets stitched by Agnes but still glares at us with its angry black and red scowl. As Mary Anne, Jenna Berk is alternately furious and miserable, perking up only to give female advice to Creighton’s Penny.
Treem, whose TV credits include “House of Cards” and “The Affair,” is particularly relentless with Mary Anne: The script exists to explore the how and the why, to borrow the title of Treem’s recent scientific play at Theater J, of abused women. (The 2014 off-Broadway “When We Were Young” attracted top talent in director Pam MacKinnon and star Cherry Jones.) Agnes, played as a too neutral low-key presence by Sheri S. Herren, supplies calm medical observations, but Treem also lets Mary Anne vent her swirling emotional conflicts.
Mary Anne’s dark depths are dramatized in an unsettling sexist encounter with Paul (the soft-spoken Theo Hadjimichael), a seemingly gentle guest who keeps poking into the off-limits kitchen. The guitar-strumming Paul’s little intrusions are symbolic — and we’ve been warned by Agnes that charm is a hallmark of abusers.
Even that’s not the end of the story, as Treem follows her knack for honest complexity right to the finish. Marie Byrd Sproul directs the show without undue fuss as Agnes bakes, Penny studies and Mary Anne guzzles whiskey; there’s a twist near the end and a tone shift that makes you feel better than you would have guessed. You leave thinking about Treem’s knotty, badly treated women — but also about how intuitively she unspools a tale.
When We Were Young and Unafraid by Sarah Treem. Directed by Marie Byrd Sproul. Lights, Katie McCreary; costumes, Liz Gossens; sound design, Jordana Abrenica. About 2 hours, 10 minutes. Through July 8 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets $35-$45. Call 202-265-3767 or visit keegantheatre.com.