What a Young Wife Ought to Know at Belfry Theatre SPARK Festival 2017. A review.

What a Young Wife Ought to Know at Belfry Theatre SPARK Festival 2017. A review.

Sometimes a play is so powerful, speaks to you across time, place and position so directly that you feel you are in the room with the actors. And, as a critic/reviewer, you wish you had a little more time to grapple with the issues and themes it unfolds, rather than rush to produce the requisite words.

Playwright Hannah Moscovitch has a reputation, and the theatre world far and wide has noticed.  She was the 2016 recipient of the Windham-Campbell prize, a $165,000 literary award so secretive the nominees have no idea they are in the running.

Sadly for Victoria audiences, although her work is well-known and presented “back East”, we have only had three other occasions in recent memory to view her work on stage—when Scrumpy Theatre presented Essay (in a double bill with Dandelion Theatre) in 2013 and at previous Belfry Theatre SPARK Festivals—Little One in 2013 and The Russian Play in 2010.  Moscovitch grapples with big issues in a way that is at once highly intelligent and down-to-earth—relevant to the average person.  Her work is informed by vast amounts of research—What a Young Wife Ought to Know is based, in part, on letters sent to British birth-control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes.  Yet, rather than being a simple history lesson, and a dry treatise on women’s sexual health, this play brims with vitality, longing, yearning and sexiness seldom seen in theatres.

The earthy quality of the prose is further accentuated by the set (Andrew Cull) and lighting design (Leigh Ann Vardy)—sparse and directed to not only capture, but focus and hold the audience’s attention; much of the action happens on the forestage.

Photo from 2015 production. Liisa Repo-Martell and David Patrick Flemming / Photo by Timothy Richard

Sophie (Jenny Young) a young wife and mother, addresses us directly, as if to town folk attending a lecture—her painful story exposed in grim details—the abject poverty of her upbringing, her lack of sexual education, her urges and impulses. From the moment she claps eyes on Johnny (Matthew Edison) the local stable hand, Sophie is gobsmacked, completely undone by her desire. Her education limited to sessions of kissing the post boy, she turns to her older, more experienced sister Alma (Rebecca Parent) –a chamber maid at a hotel–for advice.

There isn’t a hint of the sensational or prurient in this frank and explicit tale—Sophie has agency, even if limited. How refreshing to see and hear a story told without romanticizing the real dilemma of a woman’s life; no matter how gritty the circumstances there isn’t a woman of child-bearing age who hasn’t lived some level of Sophie’s experience, or grappled with her choices.  Science and medicine might have mitigated some of the more serious aspects but any thinking person realizes the battle is no less timely now than in the 1920s.

Young is finely attuned to comedy—regaling, emphasizing and pausing in her story to elicit maximum and copious complicit laughter.  Her relationship with Alma (Parent’s is a fine portrayal of unerring wisdom, hard-won through the vicissitudes of life) is filled with the teasing and bickering give-and-take common to siblings who know one another’s weaknesses and strengths all too well. When tragedy strikes, her sister’s spirit remains to comfort her.

There is an incredible sense throughout, of the transcendent nature of human existence—emphasized in a marvellous moment when Sophie and Johnny, lit as if in a cathedral by streams of light, finally acknowledge their unabashed hunger for one another—paired with earthiness.  Moscovitch acknowledges the messiness of sexual relations in a way that is as real as if she had been peeking into our bedrooms. The chemistry and tension between Young and Edison is electrifying—invisible sparks radiate in waves from their bodies as they dare to touch one another for the first time.

Under the rigourous guidance of Christian Barry–who directed the original production at Neptune Theatre in 2015–the actors leave everything onstage, without compromise and with incredible nuance, grace and power.

Sophie’s struggles are as timely as in 1920.  Hard won gains in reproductive health and sexual freedom are under attack worldwide.  Our comparatively comfortable corner of the country might appear to be immune, but, for how long?

What a Young Wife Ought to Know by Hannah Moscovitch
2b theatre company (Halifax, NS)
Belfry Theatre SPARK Festival, 1291 Gladstone Avenue
March 21-25, 2017
Tickets $30 online, in person or by phone

Jenny Young Sophie
Rebecca Parent Alma
Matthew Edison Johnny

Director Christian Barry
Lighting Designer Leigh Ann Vardy
Costume Designer Leesa Hamilton
Set Designer Andrew Cull
Stage Manager Kate Porter
Production Manager Louisa Adamson
Assistant Production Manager Daniel Oulton

Disclaimer: I received complimentary tickets to attend the opening night performance of What a Young Wife Ought to Know.

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