Desperate lessons in What a Young Wife Ought To Know

What a Young Wife Ought To Know is the type of play you wish wasn’t relevant in 2018.

But unfortunately, centering on women, men and families who are restricted from information, birth control, What a Young Wife Ought To Know is all too familiar.

This latest play from Hannah Moscovitch to hit Edmonton’s stages plays until December 2 at The Roxy on Gateway. Theatre Network’s production features Merran Carr-Wiggin as Sophie, whose enthusiastic love for her husband results in ever-increasing risky pregnancies and births, Cole Humeny as her husband Jonny, and Bobbi Goddard as Sophie’s sister, a victim of a lack of access to birth control. 

Merran Carr-Wiggin & Bobbi Goddard in What A Young Wife Ought to Know by Hannah Moscovitch presented by Theatre Network at The Roxy on Gateway. Photo credit: Ian Jackson.

What a Young Wife Ought To Know is a love story that lives in the shadow of a poor community with limited access to birth control and abortions. This is the Irish quarter of Ottawa in the 1920s. In the play, we see Sophie and Jonny struggle with the pregnancies resulting from their desire for one another. Meanwhile, Sophie questions her doctor, her neighbours and the modern-day audience about the methods they use for birth control and how they discuss them with their husbands. The only answer she receives though is abstinence – an unsatisfying answer for Sophie and Jonny given the love they have for one another. As Sophie has more and more unhealthy babies, she grows desperate in her search for birth control with her sister’s fate hanging over her own mind as she does so. 

Theatre Network’s production, directed by Marianne Copithorne, left me so grateful to live in Alberta in 2018 and threw into sharp relief how much I take for granted my access to safe and effective birth control and abortions. As Merran Carr-Wiggin as Sophie demands that the audience tells her how birth control works in the 21st century, the show rings of the struggles women all around the world face, even today, more than half a century after the birth control pill was approved for contraceptive use.

Tessa Stamp’s set design is incredible, easily transitioning between the streets of Ottawa, to the stables where Jonny works, to the family home. I especially loved the height added to the set to evoke a poor, inner-city neighbourhood where your next-door neighbours really are just that.

Merran Carr-Wiggin & Cole Humeny in What A Young Wife Ought to Know by Hannah Moscovitch presented by Theatre Network at The Roxy on Gateway. Photo credit: Ian Jackson

Each cast member brings so much authenticity to their performance, the play really feels like they are honoring those who suffered and fought for the right to birth control and abortion access and those who continue to do so. As Alma, Bobbi Goddard’s performance is mercurial – one moment the tender older sister, the next a terrifying stand-in matron. As Jonny, Cole Humeny plays the role as equal parts eager and confused – his character is equally enthralled with his wife and refuses to listen to her and her needs. It’s appropriate for the times, but heartbreaking to see how it dissolves the relationship. Merran Carr-Wiggens’ Sophie is equally affecting. Similar to her husband, the enthusiasm and love for her husband is contagious – I wanted to love Jonny as much as Sophie does. But Merran plays Sophie as wise beyond the rush of lust that she feels through momentary looks and gestures, in addition to Moscovitch’s smart script. She knows her body, she sees the realities, but search as she might, she isn’t able to gain control over either.

Desperation percolates throughout everything, as thick as the air. Desperation for love, for a family (big or small, depending on who you ask), for rights, for status, for information, for freedom. In a play that leaves you desperate for change, desperation is the constant.

What A Young Wife Ought to Know plays at the Roxy on Gateway November 15 – December 2. Tickets are $27 – $30 through Theatre Network’s Box Office and are two-for-one on November 20 and 27. There is a free post-show talkback at 9:20 following the November 29 performance.

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