What a Young Wife Ought to Know is a play about love. Its tenderness is tarnished by tragic outcomes beyond the control of those trapped in poverty and looked down upon by society, with few options to escape.
Jessica Anne Nelson directs this piece of earthy theatre that spells out what women went through in childbirth or trying to prevent it when the available means of success in Ottawa in 1920 were next to none. In her script, acclaimed Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch does not mention what men could do other than abstain completely from coitus.
Moscovitch’s plot is set in an impoverished Irish/Canadian community and depicts the marital relationship between Sophie and Jonny, gloriously portrayed by Bronwyn Henderson and Michael Briganti. Its premise is based on the fact that if Johnny’s wife continues to fall pregnant, she risks certain death.
Before the play starts, Sophie is discovered sitting at a bare wooden table, surrounded by drapes of narrow off-white flimsy fabric, intriguingly designed by Kimira Reddy. Sophie scrubs at blood-stained rags in a broken tin bucket of water, foreshadowing the story that’s about to unfold. A solemn sense of lack and loss surrounds her until her elder sister and Jonny’s once-lover, Alma, glides onstage as the ghost of her former self and whispers in Sophie’s ear. What she whispers prompts Sophie to address the audience directly. Charlotte Wright perfectly contrasts the ethereal quality of Alma’s spirit with the rough, tough love she once meted out to Sophie.
Henderson’s comic timing is faultless, and her switch from jest to confrontation drives points home with a piercingly wry humour. When she says in broad Irish, “I have a habit of truthfulness with my husband; do you have a habit of truthfulness with yours, ladies?” her reaction to the audience’s response is priceless. She is the only actor to speak directly to the audience throughout the play, thus linking the story and moving it along at a fast and steady pace.
All three members of this accomplished cast under Nelson’s and intimacy director Michelle Thorne’s sensitive guidance are first class. Victoria Bell’s lighting, Jack Goodison’s sound design, and the contributions of the other crew members complete this highly recommended, provocative production.
Excavation Theatre presents What a Young Wife Ought to Know at Performance Works on Granville Island (1218 Cartwright St, Vancouver) until April 1. Visit excavationtheatre.com for tickets and information.