A Challenging Production that You Ought to See
What a Young Wife Ought to Know is based, in part, on letters sent to 1920s-era British birth control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes. But to call it a play about birth control is almost trivial. In truth, it’s a play about the unimaginable decisions and the resultant soul-crushing burdens that some women had to bear all in the name of persevering—and, in some cases, preventing the expansion of—the family unit.
The play may be set in Ottawa during the Roaring Twenties, but for the characters that roar is not one of prosperity, but rather the cacophony of internal strife and conflict between what a family is expected to be and what the reality of poverty and raising children could be for the poor, working class.
There are wonderful moments of humour in this play and they stand out because of the stark sense of foreboding and darkness throughout the rest of the production. As we watch Liisa Repo-Martell’s Sophie move from a naïve young teen to a woman descending into madness, literally worn out from a series of challenging pregnancies, those moments of humour come fewer and more far between. We, as the audience, laugh a little harder and louder because these moments break the increasingly powerful tension.
Repo-Martell is absolutely incredible in this role. This production is essentially a one-woman play, with strong complementary performances by David Patrick Flemming as the husband—a handsome object of desire, of limited means—and Rebecca Parent’s Alma, Sophie’s sister, who is pragmatic about love, with a closed-off heart that betrays her to tragic effect. But it’s Repo-Martell who is impossible to ignore. She visibly ages with nothing more than her body language and performance. That moment is signified by a symbolic donning of a dress and marks her passage out of idealism and into adulthood.
Throughout the play, Sophie breaks the fourth wall, speaking to us as the audience, imploring us to share in her experience and understand her motivations. She speaks to the women in the crowd as a concept—rhetorically asking for their sympathy and their shared culpability in her behaviour.
The cadence of characters’ speech is also used to great impact, as there are a few effective moments where the characters stop in the middle of the line and we, as the audience, are made to feel the depth of that sentiment—wordlessly, but no less powerfully.
What a Young Wife Ought to Know is only 75 minutes, but it packs a lot of emotion into those moments. It touches on a number of topics, ranging from the Catholic guilt in family development to social mores and the stigmatization of birth control during this period of time. It contrasts the importance of honesty in marriage with the desire to bear the burden to spare another—rightly or wrongly. It’s 75 minutes that leave you emotionally drained but appreciative of some incredible performances.
The power of those performances is amplified by the simplicity of the set. Essentially a small kitchen area and reading chair are all that appear on stage. There is no movement of set, but rather the on-stage performances are enhanced by clever use of lighting.
This is not a play for the faint of heart. And, for some, a play that involves abortion may be too much of a barrier. But it is a play that rewards those who are ready for a challenge, as they will be rewarded with a wonderful production led by a tour-de-force performance by its lead. It’s not a play that you’ll come out of feeling happy, but it is one that you’ll come out of feeling better for having seen.