Review: What A Young Wife Ought to Know (2B theatre company and Crow’s Theatre)

Photo of What a Young Wife Ought to KnowA dark comedy of a woman’s life pre birth control, on stage at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto

There is no love lost for the past’s treatment of women’s bodily autonomy in 2b theatre company’s What a Young Wife Ought to Know playing at the Streetcar Crowsnest. Things are better now, if not perfect, and we’d do well to try and keep it that way.

At least, that’s how my guest and I felt leaving the theatre. We were haunted, terrified, and struck by just how important it was to hear this specific story in this day and age.

Written by Hannah Moscovitch, What a Young Wife Ought to Know presents the struggles of young Ottawan Sophie (Liisa Repo-Martell) in pre-birth control 1920’s Canada.

Almost a one-woman show, but not really, the audience is addressed directly by Sophie as she reveals how she came to be in her current situation.

It all connects to a burgeoning attraction between Sophie’s sister Alma (Rebecca Parent) and the incredibly handsome Johnny (David Patrick Flemming)—the man Sophie ends up marrying.

What could easily be a cliched story of young love from tragedy becomes a gut-wrenching examination of a world where women are doomed by their own biology and humanity.

And, in an even more terrifying twist, how ordinary this destruction becomes for the women who live it.

The entire theatre was filled with thick haze that remained throughout the entire show. My guest felt that it made the scenes feel like they were from another era.

Honestly, the lighting and set are probably the most dreamlike quality of the play. Everything else is disturbingly (and incredibly) realistic and mundane.

Nothing is sugar-coated. The horror comes from the normality Moscovitch crafted in her characters and setting. These are people who have interests, are angry, are sad, curious, horny; without the costumes, Sophie could be a contemporary woman.

There was a moment where we were treated to a clinically dry walkthrough of how to conduct an at-home abortion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many women squirm in their seats. Something about the staging, Alma speaking into her sister’s ear, the contact between these two women — it was visceral.

That’s not to say that What a Young Wife Ought to Know is down and out depressing. I’d describe it as a dark comedy—almost. Maybe that’s why the show lands so well.

Repo-Martell is incredible. At one moment she can be crying, at the next, she’s slyly talking about good-looking men or asking her soon-to-be husband to take his trousers off. She’s like an emotionally damaged stand-up comic. Here is a woman who takes the bad in stride—it hurts her, but every decision she makes, every urge she has, is just a part of life.

At the end of the show, my guest turned to me and said, “she’s been crying for 75 minutes,” because of how nuanced Repo-Martell was with her emotions the entire time she was on stage.

There were so many moments that were laugh out loud funny, and unexpectedly so. Parent and Repo-Martell delivered a believable performance as a pair of sisters, equally petty, teasing, caring, and cruel in their spats.

Parent, I think, was riveting as Alma. She was so cruel and violent and her decisions seemed selfish but you never lose sight of her as a complex person. There’s a moment, where she brutally slaps her sister in front of Johnny. This hush fell over the audience because, not a moment earlier, Alma had been sweetly and good-naturedly flirting with Johnny. The slap was part of Alma’s taciturn nature, but Parent never lets that cruelty dominate the character.

Essentially what What a Young Wife Ought to Know portrays is something that is so easy to forget in Canada. We are very, very lucky at the moment to have at least some level of access to abortion services, birth control, and health care.

It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago that Sophie’s struggle was part of a woman’s everyday—and that struggle is still very real for some people. What a Young Wife Ought to Know isn’t just a timely play, its subject is dire for people to understand the context that forced women to make impossible choices — and the importance of maintaining bodily autonomy today.

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Photo courtesy of Crowsnest Theatre and 2b theatre company

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