Hannah Moscovitch's evocative new play, a co-production of Halifax's Neptune Theatre and 2b Theatre Company, is inspired by a compilation of letters sent to famous British birth-control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes. What a Young Wife Ought to Know explores the bedrooms of women nearly a century ago, repressed by lack of sexual education and yearning for liberation.
It's 1920s working-class Ottawa, and young wife and mother Sophie (Liisa Repo-Martell) is the host of the evening. We are immediately situated in her mysterious, somewhat supernatural world where Sophie speaks directly to the audience, desperate for answers about marriage and contraception. Moscovitch plants the play's ending at its beginning, but never gives away the specifics of the stunning conclusion as Sophie's story unfolds. We know her deceased sister Alma (Rebecca Parent) will speak to her. We know her stableboy husband Johnny (David Patrick Flemming) makes very little money. We know that Sophie does not want more children.
Moscovitch's penchant for gruesome subject matter has never seemed so hospitable, and her signature pairing of the ugly and the comedic is at its best blend to date. Young Wife's comedy is clear though not always comfortable – we are often laughing at the very things that make our stomachs turn. Sophie's innocence and ignorance, Alma's cruelty and Johnny's stubbornness are humorous and heartbreaking at once. Because Sophie uses direct address, a Moscovitch staple, the audience becomes compliant with the difficult and dangerous choices she must make. Repo-Martell is raw, welcoming and funny as Sophie, sailing effortlessly from a farm girl's charming youth to the woeful desperation of a woman struggling to advocate for her own sexuality and safety. Moscovitch has written achingly truthful relationships, and in their truth we both laugh and cower at what we recognize.
The internationally acclaimed 2b Theatre Company is known for its crisp, highly stylized productions, and director Christian Barry has seamlessly melded his company's renowned production elements with demanding performances from his actors. In a time when technology so often overwhelms a script, the dusky designs of Andrew Cull and Leigh Ann Vardy only accentuate how private and repressed Sophie's reality is. Anyone familiar with Neptune's Scotiabank Theatre will be delighted to see how its incriminating vastness has been transformed. Cull has shrunk a stage that typically swallows its productions whole and zoomed in on Young Wife's necessities (kitchen, living room, Johnny's stables), while Vardy's precise and imaginative lighting cocoons Sophie as she confides in her audience. The simple interiors are a strong background for a script that expands many years and a story that explores the unravelling of both a woman's body and psyche.
It is impossible not to draw parallels between Young Wife's Ottawa and our country today. The stigma against low-income couples having children presented in the play is not an old-fashioned problem – women today are subject to contempt if they terminate a pregnancy, just as easily if they decide to raise a family using income assistance. Birth control is not covered by most health-care insurance, and it was only 20 years ago that doctors were being shot for performing abortions. Women on Prince Edward Island have no access to abortion, and in 2006, New Brunswick suspended its publicly funded clinics. As we see in Young Wife, lack of birth-control methods and the absence of sexual health information are not protecting anyone, they are jeopardizing lives.
This summer, a Nova Scotian movement known as Your Choice Halifax hosted a "Pro-Love" rally outside the city's Victoria Hospital, declaring that pro-choice is pro-life. They advocate for the safety, well-being and autonomy of women whose lives, like Young Wife's Sophie, are threatened by their pregnancies, and above all deserve sovereignty over their own bodies. By giving the women of the 1920s a voice, Moscovitch has given many contemporary women a voice as well. What a Young Wife Ought to Know is more than a compelling history lesson, it is an opportunity to contemplate the state of sexual health and freedom in our society today.