Ottawa’s own Hannah Moscovitch writes a startling, eye-opening play inspired by letters sent to a famous British birth control advocate, Dr. Marie Stopes, in the 1920s (a book she found at a garage sale for 75 cents no less!). What A Young Wife Ought to Know is an experience that will have you questioning your own emotional reaction at the Great Canadian Theatre Company this season.
In an eerie opening scene, a comically blunt Sophie (Liisa Repo-Martell) lightens the mood by speaking directly to the ladies and gentlemen of the audience as she begs for answers to questions that fall on a sea of silence. Questions that the audiences will soon realize parrell the tough life lessons Sophie learns throughout the play. Questions that the audience has likely never had to contemplated before.
Sophie’s narrative is rooted in naive innocence as she weaves an unexpected tale of working-class reality that has caused her sister’s death by failed home abortion and led her, grief stricken and impulsive, into the arms of the would-be father. Here you meet Sophie’s older, unapologetic sister Alma (Rebecca Parent) and the irresistible but poor stableboy, Johnny (David Patrick Flemming).
As you might have guessed, she becomes a young wife and, soon after, a young mother. The mixture of grief, love and forbidden urges follows the newlyweds wherever life takes them. For Sophie, that’s through three births and one miscarriage. Each pregnancy brings her closer to madness and to the brink of death. The most troubling part is the helplessness you feel in the audience because no solution comes to mind.
It’s worth noting here that one of the lesser takeaways of the play, but still an important one, should come with its own warning label: cocoa butter and tantric acid is NOT a viable form of protection. Do not try at home.
The set was functional in its purpose to compliment the simplicity of the play but the most noticeable contribution came from Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting design. From a single spotlight on centre stage, a dimly lit lamp off to the side and a expertly placed flickering beam, each one of Sophie’s pleading monologues were illuminated in a way that added credibility to her raw innocence and the fragility of the storyline itself.
If the name Hannah Moscovitch rings a bell, that’s because she’s known for confronting the uncomfortable and the controversial head on. At any given moment during the performance, you could find someone cringing, someone laughing and someone gasping. This is what makes Moscovitch’s work worth discussing, that dark humour that confronts the audience into an awkward visceral reaction.
At any given moment during the performance, you could find someone cringing, someone laughing and someone gasping.
Her work speaks to a generation long past that struggled for contraceptive rights. Nearly 100 years later and it’s safe to say the narrative has shifted slightly with the number of birth control devices available, although affordability and insurance coverage in many places is still a topic high on political agendas. The debate now over women’s reproductive rights is more prevalent than ever.
Moscovitch has presented us with startling piece of theatre based in working-class Ottawa in the 1920s but the implications of how far our society has left to go is the plays most unexpected twist.
So what is it exactly a young wife ought to know? You’ll have to go see to find out.
What A Young Wife Ought To Know by Hannah Moscovitch is playing at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (1233 Wellington W) until February 4. Tickets cost $38–54 online and at the box office. The first Sunday of every GCTC production is a pay what you can performance.