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In What a Young Wife Ought to Know, playwright Hannah Moscovitch effectively dramatizes a time before birth control as a potential nightmare for women.Crow’s Theatre

  • Title: What a Young Wife Ought to Know
  • Written by: Hannah Moscovitch
  • Directed by: Christian Barry
  • Starring: Liisa Repo-Martell
  • Company: 2b theatre company
  • Venue: Crow’s Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Runs to April 7, 2018


3 out of 4 stars

What a Young Wife Ought a Know: Now there’s a great play title.

Immediately, you want to know the answer to the implied question in it – and Sophie (Liisa Repo-Martell), the working-class narrator of Hannah Moscovitch’s 2015 play set in the 1920s Ottawa, does eventually provide one, satisfyingly unexpected and subtly shocking.

Growing up in a poor, overcrowded part of Canada’s capital city, Sophie gets plenty of advice on what she ought to know from the women in her life. Her mother warns of the two types of men in the world: “The ones that leave you, and the ones that don’t leave you, but you wish they would.”

Her older sister Alma (a feisty Rebecca Parent), a hotel chambermaid, seems to be of the same cynical point of view, telling her: “Half of the women cried when their husbands didn’t come home from the war, and half of them cried when they did.”

Whichever woman she listens to, Sophie gets the clear message that men are trouble, especially if you lie down with them.

Of course, that kind of trouble quickly comes along for Sophie in the form of an Irish stablehand who works at her sister’s hotel.

Johnny, described as handsome, perilously so in an era before birth control, is played by David Patrick Flemming, apparently the go-to guy for Moscovitch’s hommes fatales. He previously was the cause of complex, charming havoc in the world premiere of her play Bunny at the Stratford Festival in 2016. (Minus Flemming, that show – which examines a Canadian woman’s sexuality and guilt in a more contemporary setting – is currently back on stage at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre across town, and the two would make a fine double bill on a day on when cross-town traffic isn’t too bad.)

Johnny initially seems sweet on outgoing Alma – but how his affections transfer to her tongue-tied younger sister is a tale, gruesome, best left for telling in the theatre.

In any case, Sophie and Johnny are soon enough married and have a pair of children. The second child, from a third pregnancy, comes after a difficult birth – and with a warning from a doctor not to have any more, due to a “prolapsed womb.”

But the doctor in question provides no advice on how to practise, as Sophie calls it, “family limitation” – and both she and husband struggle to practise it in the most obvious way.

Gradually, the messages Sophie heard about men from her mother and sister in her youth start to feel no longer like good jokes, but hard-won wisdom.

Moscovitch effectively dramatizes a time before birth control as a potential nightmare for women – a world that can turn even an affectionate husband, perhaps especially an affectionate husband, into a mortal enemy.

The Ottawa-raised playwright has done her research, drawing some of the archaic terms and turns of phrase Sophie employs from Dear Dr. Stopes: Sex in the 1920s, a compilation of letters sent to British birth-control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes, as well as a similar 1915 collection titled Maternity: Letters from Working Women.

The title, which initially seems coy, is actually urgent and Repo-Martell’s performance becomes increasingly so.

What Moscovitch seems to want young women, wives or not, to know what they’ve gained and could, once again, lose. And so Sophie talks to the women in the audience directly, through what seems to be a portal to the future. “Ladies, would you make the same mistake?” she asks. (Though, first, she butters them up by complimenting their appearance, saying they appear to have “no more than one or two children apiece.”)

Those familiar with Moscovitch’s work may have gathered at this point that What a Young Wife Ought to Know is structured in her signature fashion. As with her works from The Russian Play to East of Berlin to Bunny, a guilt-plagued narrator speaks directly to the audience and seeks complicity in something that is (or is not) bothering her or his conscience, while other actors appear on stage for scenes behind the so-called fourth wall that the narrator pops in and out of.

It’s not an ineffective form – but it feels contained and, at times, too controlled.

This is director Christian Barry’s original production of What a Young Wife Ought to Know for his Halifax-based theatre company, 2b theatre; it has arrived in Toronto after wending its way around British Columbia and Ontario. It looks like and feels like a touring show – Andrew Cull’s set and Leigh Ann Vardy’s shadowy lighting seem somewhat lost in space on Crow’s spacious main stage.

Those seeking messier Moscovitch will have to wait for Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story – another 2b theatre production, which she wrote with Barry and klezmer star Ben Caplan – that is currently enjoying a run off-Broadway and is a freshly minted New York Times Critics Pick.

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