Theatre review: What a Young Wife Ought to Know is a lesson in clear-eyed compassion

Liisa Repo-Martell and David Patrick Fleming in a scene from What Young Mothers Ought to Know at GCTC. Photo: Timothy Richard Photography

At first sight, the two knitting needles stuck into an inconspicuous basket of wool seem a simple touch of domesticity. They are implements you’d expect any working class mother in the 1920s to wield with some skill and love if she wanted to keep her family decently clothed.

But as Hannah Moscovitch’s trenchant What a Young Wife Ought to Know (at the Great Canadian Theatre Company) proceeds, those needles, part of the set and never removed from the wool, take on a terrible potentiality. For this is a play concerned with women’s reproductive rights – or, more precisely, the absence of them — and we all know the horrifying use to which knitting needles have sometimes been put in the service of birth control.

That conflict – the way in which something can be creative and nurturing at the same time it can be destructive and even deadly – finds expression in the person of Sophie, the play’s central character.

Embodied rather than just played by the riveting Liisa Repo-Martell, Sophie is a young, homespun wife deeply in love with her handsome husband Johnny (David Patrick Flemming), a stable boy at an unnamed hotel in early 20th-century Ottawa.

The couple own little (the scuffed linoleum floor and scattering of plain furniture in Andrew Cull’s articulate set make that clear) but they have a rich relationship. As Sophie says in one of her regular addresses to the audience, “We had a habit of truthfulness with one another.”

But in an era when birth control is not only unavailable, at least to those of slender means like Sophie and Johnny, but also illegal, love means children. And that, in turn, means even more strain on the bodies of women, on meagre household budgets, on the very relationship that made two people a couple in the first place.

Women trapped in such situations have no voice – Moscovitch’s inclusion of occasional long and unnerving silences underscores that – and must proceed in lonely isolation.

Certainly that’s so of Alma (Rebecca Parent), Sophie’s older sister. She’s present at the top of the play when the two siblings are younger and subsequently re-appears in phantom-like manner.

Wildly different in character and outlook, Alma and Sophie are linked not just as biological sisters but as women struggling to navigate impossible situations rooted in love.

In this as in so much else about the play, Ottawa-born Moscovitch shows why she’s won such acclaim as a playwright.

Her script scoots along with nary a hitch, capturing the prime years of Sophie’s life in a tidy 80 minutes (you do wish, though, that those fleet minutes didn’t include the unnecessary fogging at the beginning of the show, which set off coughing among some GCTC audience members on opening night).

As you’d expect in a Moscovitch show, there’s pointed, black humour, humour that spotlights Sophie’s sense of irony and sarcasm, among the few weapons she has in a battle she can’t win.

There’s also desperation of a kind most of us in the audience will never know but to which we connect thanks to a script that’s at once compassionate and clear-eyed.

And there’s a powerful intimacy between Sophie and Johnny that all concerned – from Moscovitch to Repo-Martell and Flemming to director Christian Barry – have given voice to, whether in the urgency of the couple’s physical attraction to each other or in the awkward, halting conversation that can, in any relationship, signal either a growing distance or the attempt to close that distance.

What a Young Wife Ought to Know was inspired by a compilation of women’s letters from the 1920s to Dr. Marie Stopes, the famous British birth control advocate. The play was commissioned over eight years ago and premiered in 2015.

All this was well before the attack in the U.S. on women’s reproductive rights – and on women themselves – reached wide public consciousness. It was also before the Trump administration began its further disenfranchisement of so many Americans.

Moscovitch couldn’t have foreseen what was coming in our neighbouring country. Let’s hope she wasn’t prescient in frightening ways.

What a Young Wife Ought to Know is a 2b theatre company production. It was reviewed Thursday. At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until Feb. 4. Tickets:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.