By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Love,” Sophie tells us near the start of What A Young Wife Ought To Know, “is a strange sort of madness that comes over you and makes the future go dark.”
In Hannah Moscovitch’s gut-wrenching coming-of-age story, which opens the Theatre Network season in a riveting Marianne Copthorne production, there’s a dark and terrible price to be paid for love, intimacy, and desire. And it’s paid, in the main, by the poor and the female.
In the Ottawa of the 1920s, with its immigrant ghettos and entrenched poverty, young lower-class women like our narrator Sophie (Merran Carr-Wiggin) and her spirited big sister Alma (Bobbi Goddard), have no access to information about “family limitation” or “birth prevention” — and no means to support an unstoppable series of babies.
Men must be approached with extreme caution, and certainly not whilst lying down, according to Alma who’s in a position to know, as it turns out in (trust me) horrifying developments in the play. Sophie’s mom, by reputation an archive of “what a young wife ought to know,” tells her girls that there are only two types of men, “the ones who leave you, and the ones who don’t leave you but you wish they would.”
Handsome Irish stablehands like Jonny, played with a beguiling mixture of come-hither swagger and perplexed innocence by Cole Humeny, spell trouble. Passion without birth control is a fearful thing. We watch the heartbreaking struggles of Sophie, young wife, and then serial mother, and Jonny, the husband with whom she’s madly, deeply in love, to keep their distance, we’re seeing a love story thwarted by ignorance, by poverty, by class prejudice and puritanism, by everything about their lives.
And it’s a world of nightmare absurdity: strict medical warnings (do not have more children), zero medical advice on how that might be accomplished in an intimate relationship. And speaking of those, if sex is risky, don’t have it. Separate beds and gardening are the only answer provided; the under-the-table answer is back-alley or DIY surgery. And this is a play that is unflinching about going there.
Tessa Stamp’s design, a tall, blank facade of tenement windows that dwarfs its powerless inhabitants, is eloquent in itself (lighted empathetically by Scott Peters). And Darrin Hagen’s haunting Celtic-flavoured score lingers in the harsh air.
The desperate stakes are set forth vividly in Copthorne’s strikingly well-acted production. And it’s not least because the chemistry between Carr-Wiggins and Humeny is compelling, and hot. The movement-scape by which proximity is both longed-for and dangerous is electric.
Carr-Wiggin is stunning as the young wife who steps out of the frame of her era into a shivery timelessness intermittently to address us directly, with questions that (as in the case of so many Moscovitch narrators) are guilty overtures to potential allies or accusers. “Ladies, would you make the same mistake?”
It’s a beautiful (and beautifully thought-out) performance that charts the development of the character from sweet and girlishly comical naiveté to a kind of desperate, not to say tragic, womanly wisdom about the world, and the nature of the lonely trap in which Sophie finds herself. You believe Carr-Wiggin every step of the way in a love story that becomes a story of unrequited love. Start right now thinking about all the roles you’d love to see this luminous actor take on.
Goddard is excellent, too, as the feisty, cynical Alma, whose confidence — she doesn’t walk, she stomps in her boots — is camouflage. The sisterly relationship, which goes beyond the grave, is compellingly lived-in. And Humeny as Jonny, battling comfortless social and economic circumstances designed to keep a poor immigrant down and cast him as a sort of domestic villain if he yearns to have a big family. When he says that the world around them treats them as animals, he’s not off the mark.
One hundred years later, the world has changed, true; birth control and abortion are widely if not universally available. But we’re seeing a drift backwards. What A Young Wife Ought To Know can’t help but be a cautionary tale about women’s reproductive rights and its corollary, women’s identity as sexual beings. That little frisson of relevance is horrifying in itself. What a young wife ought to know, in the end, is what everyone ought to know, that what has been gained can be lost.
What A Young Wife Ought To Know
Theatre: Theatre Network
Written by: Hannah Moscovitch
Directed by: Marianne Copthorne
Starring: Merran Carr-Wiggin, Bobbi Goddard, Cole Humeny
Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Dec. 2
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca