What a Young Wife Ought to Know features Sophie (played by Liisa Repo-Martell), a young women in rural Ottawa in the 1920s. Sophie grows from the innocence and ignorance of adolescence to the madness of motherhood as she falls in love with Johnny (played by David Patrick Flemming). She voices her struggles surrounding her reproductive rights, asking both her doctors and the audience for advice.
What a Young Wife Ought to Know by Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch premiered in 2015 at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, N.S. With the same cast and production team, 2b Company Production, the show comes to the McManus Stage at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. for a limited time.
Moscovitch cleverly disguises the grim realities of childbirth and womanhood through dark humour and romance. The production appears to be a quirky love story; however, it primarily deals with the misconceptions and lack of public knowledge surrounding women’s reproductive rights. Through the emotional journey of her sister Alma's (played by Rebecca Parent) unsafe abortion, Sophie becomes weary of her life as a young married woman and wants to prevent pregnancy after the birth of her third child.
Playwright Moscovitch credits her inspiration to reading Dear Dr. Stopes: Sex in the 1920s, a compilation of letters written to Dr. Marie Stopes.
Stopes was a lifelong advocate for birth control and opened the first birth control clinic in London, England, in 1925. The clinic was only open for 16 months due to protests, but it offered information and remedies for pregnancy prevention.
Repo-Martell is haunting as Sophie, and her monologues take the same shape. She steps out of the scene to address the audience directly, and the spotlight on her face looks as if she were holding a flashlight under her chin to tell a ghost story around the campfire. The show is not short of ghostly characters, as Sophie begins the story by telling the audience that her dead sister speaks to her in moments of stress.
The production does more than break the fourth wall — Sophie asks the audience for advice, with her opening monologue asking questions and speaking directly to the women in the crowd. She asks if this is a familiar story and says she’ll see the truth in their eyes. At the end of the show, she asks the audience, “Ladies, you are wise, do you do such things as I have done?” Sophie’s monologues give a confessional feeling to the story; she dares the audience to understand on a personal level.
The production delves into the divide between classes. Upper class families of the time were practicing pregnancy prevention; however, when Sophie tries to learn about preventative options, she is shamed on a moral and financial basis. As Sophie inquires about early forms of contraception, she is told that those kinds of questions are disgraceful and not medical matters. She struggles to properly raise a family through the hardships of an economic deficit.
The show is powerful and moving; however, it does little to suggest a positive outcome or solution to the problem. Although the value and quality of a performance should not be determined based on the happiness of the ending, or lack thereof, the steady plot and unmoving set did not provide dynamic change. The heavy and hard-to-watch nature of the story was relentless. Even still, the audience is unable to look away.
What a Young Wife Ought to Know plays at the Grand Theatre from Feb. 6 to 10. More information about tickets can be found on the Grand Theatre’s website.