Web-extra (January 25, 2018): What a Young Wife Ought to Know ;
at the GCTC until February 4, 2018.
By Allyson Domanski, Newswest Theatre Reviewer.
Greeting you on arrival is beguiling illumination that blankets an eerily smoky set. Plain antique furnishing indicates that this is neither a contemporary piece nor a story about the well-to-do. The set by Andrew Cull and lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy befit both the period and the apparition alluded to from the start of GCTC’s latest offering, What a Young Wife Ought to Know.
Sophie, the young wife in question, opens the play by addressing the audience in a disarmingly forthright manner, her diction a throwback to a bygone era. Dressed in a fetching old-fashioned frock (costumes by Leesa Hamilton), the young lady speaks as if intimately acquainted with us.
Her sister’s taken to talking to her, she tells us, but since her sister’s dead, Sophie thinks she may be going mad. That doesn’t worry her; the insane asylum is just down the road so luckily, she won’t have to go far. Supplicating to us as if soliciting advice from a physician or a wizened woman-friend, Sophie dares to share the otherwise unspeakable. What troubles her is a sin: she knows it’s wicked to use unnatural means to stop a natural child from coming into the world.
Her dilemma in those opening lines had to arch a brow or two for how unthinkingly commonplace such ‘unnatural means’ prevent childbirth today. They not only thwart reproduction, they permit desire as justification alone for sex, known as ‘the marital act’ in the first decades of the twentieth century, the backdrop for this play penned by celebrated Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch.
Indeed, back in the day, birth prevention was illegal and talk of sex was taboo. All a young wife like Sophie knew was learned from an older sister like Alma. Alma is hardly worldly – let’s get real, this is a play about fuddy-duddy Ottawa – but her work at the hotel has taught her a thing or two about men. She berates and beats Sophie for mercy-kissing the post-boy who’s about to die of consumption, and for ogling the handsome stable-hand with the Irish brogue named Johnny who asks if she’s a “feckin’ eejit for staring so”. Alma, admonishing Sophie for such brazenness but also to show that she has the upper hand, imparts to innocent Sophie some rather vital technical information: when you have union with a man, you lie down, he puts his organ in and you have a child.
More detailed mechanics of the act would be unavailable for another half century until publication of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask.”
Sophie later finds Alma vomiting but she’s not sick. Either having flouted her own good advice while working at the hotel, or having decided to snag Johnny before her prettier, younger sister does, Alma lies to Sophie that she had union with a Mr. Sutherland and for doing something God didn’t like, she now finds herself in the family way.
Desperate not to be found out, Alma beseeches Sophie for help to scrape it out. (Such were the options at the time.) Bewildered Sophie pokes around until she feels something dislodge. What follows, the audience is thankfully left to only presume, are the catastrophic flows of the red sea.
By then, you could’ve heard the proverbial pin-drop in the packed house of the theatre, such were we gripped.
Re-enter Johnny. Distraught, feeling as responsible for Alma’s death as Sophie, he is suddenly more attractive to Sophie for the emotional sensitivity he displays than for his physical attributes (which are ample, I might add). The two find solace in each other and the play’s unflinching look at love, sex, and fertility shifts to focus on Sophie and Johnny, whose knowledge of how that all works is abysmal and attests that We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby.
Christian Barry directs this extraordinary 2b Theatre Company production. Liisa Repo-Martell as Sophie is movingly rendered, transforming Sophie from inexperienced naïveté to weathered resilience in all of 75 intermission-less minutes. Her terrific performance not only conveys the affect of yore and has the down-home lilt of an Ottawa Valley-girl down pat, but she lustily sizzles in what can rightly be called sex scenes with Johnny. He is interpreted by David Patrick Fleming with spot-on emotion, physicality and the nimble timing of a comic. Rebecca Parent astutely portrays Alma, both keenly cunning when alive and guileless when dead, haunting Sophie as the apparition.
This small cast of new faces to the GCTC stage compellingly delivers Moscovitch’s vision inspired by real stories from the bedrooms and lives of young mothers of a century ago. By the end, you’re left wondering how similar the circumstances faced by our great- or great-great-grandmothers, many of whom bore six, eight, sometimes twelve children, not all of them surviving, were to those captured on stage.
Taut, heavy-hitting, yet imbued with moments of tenderness and levity, this play is very well done. Highly recommended.
What a Young Wife Ought to Know runs at the GCTC until February 4, 2018.
CAST (Actor: character):
- David Patrick Fleming: Johnny;
- Rebecca Parent: Alma;
- Liisa Repo-Martell: Sophie.
- Hannah Moscovitch: Playwright;
- Christian Barry: Director;
- Leigh Ann Vardy: Lighting Designer;
- Leesa Hamilton: Costume Designer;
- Andrew Cull: Set Designer;
- Fiona Jones: Stage Manager;
- Daniel Oulton: Production Manager;
- Louisa Adamson: Director of Production.
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