Spark Festival 2017: What a Young Wife Ought to Know
Review by Chad Jarvie-Laidlaw – Showbill.ca contributor
March 22, 2017
Hannah Moscovitch’s What a Young Wife Ought to Know is an examination of the troubles of the reproductive rights of women in 1920s Ottawa and the social stigma that Irish immigrants endured at the time.
Equal parts memory play and confessional, Young Wife follows Sophie (Jenny Young), a young Ottawa Valley Irish woman and her somewhat unusual courtship with her husband Johnny (Matthew Edison). Their relationship is mediated and dominated by Sophie’s older sister Alma (Rebecca Parent) and the unseen presence of Sophie and Alma’s mother.
Moscovitch deftly weaves together themes of reproductive autonomy, class struggle and the troubles of early 20th century Irish immigrants. Sex and contraception are regularly referred to through the euphemisms of the 1920s, to both comedic and dramatic effect. While “separate beds and gardening” may be an amusing method of contraception to consider, it underscores the lack of accurate information available to women – particularly those of certain backgrounds – in the early 20th century, and reinforces that these struggles are still contemporary for many women.
Directed by Christian Barry, the performances of Young and Edison stand out. Young’s Sophie ages well from her teens on into early adulthood, going from the naïvety of believing that kissing can cause pregnancy to the desperation of knowing that another child could cost her life. Her problems are both comic and agonizing, providing ample opportunity for a stunning and disarming performance.
Edison’s portrayal of Johnny is nuanced, portraying genuine charm, while also not shying away from the troubling pressures and expectations of 1920s masculinity. The two show real chemistry, and give a well rounded picture of the dynamics of men and women at the time.
The stage design is spare, but effective, with only a few pieces of furniture to serve for a number of rooms. The spaces are gracefully defined through a fantastic lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Her design easily moves between locations, both providing abstract spaces and concrete places. The sound design falters somewhat, beginning with an interesting and eerie buildup, which unfortunately is never followed up on or seen again, leaving its presence unresolved.
The Bottom Line
For its lessons in the politics and pressures on Ottawa Irish in the 1920s, the deft examination of reproductive rights, and how the two are deeply linked, What a Young Wife Ought to Know both illuminates the struggles of a past time, and brings into greater focus their contemporary relevance. Young Wife navigates these themes with both levity and haunting drama.