april 2022 | Volume 226


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Photo credit Javier R. Sotres.

What a Young Wife Ought to Know
by Hannah Moscovitch
Excavation Theatre
Performance Works, Granville Island
Mar. 24-April 1

Excavation Theatre’s production of Hannah Moscovitch’s What a Young Wife Ought to Know is auspiciously timed. This play about contraception and abortion in 1920s Ottawa is being staged at the end of Women’s History Month, on the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Canada’s first birth control advocacy group in Vancouver, the week that birth control prescriptions become free in British Columbia.

It also resonates strongly with the attacks on women’s rights in the U.S.: the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the end of legalized abortion in many U.S. states, and subsequent attempts to make morning-after pills illegal. A roomful of Republican legislators tied to their chairs would be a perfect audience for this show.

Director Jessica Anne Nelson and her three actors do a terrific job with the play. The material itself is hard to watch—the plight of its poor women and their families difficult, painful and ugly. Moscovitch and the actors inject some welcome humour into the early part of the play, but as things get progressively grim for the central character, the only consolation for the audience is to be grateful that conditions today, at least in Canada, are so much better. At the end you might want to march, protest, scream and vote to make sure they stay that way.

On Kimira Reddy’s set of arched and canopied draperies, dimly lit by Victoria Bell, Alma (Charlotte Wright) and younger sister Sophie (Bronwyn Henderson) live out their lives in wrenching poverty. Working as a maid in a local hotel, Alma falls for handsome Jonny (Michael Briganti), an Irish immigrant who works in the hotel stables, then later in a mill. Sophie falls for him, too, and after Alma dies of a botched abortion, Sophie and Jonny marry.

We get only fragments of information about why Alma chose to abort. But as Sophie and Jonny’s life develops, with pregnancy after pregnancy and childbirth after childbirth, with serious money troubles and a severe physical toll on Sophie’s health and the health of her children, we come to understand it more clearly.

Sophie and Jonny have a passionate relationship, but their sex leads only to more hardship. Sophie tries to get information about contraception from druggists, doctors, and local women. But she’s blocked at every turn;most contraceptives are illegal, and contraception itself is too awkward to talk about. The home remedies she tries are disastrous—one, especially, in a darkly comic way.

But Jonny alternately pleads with her and bullies her to continue to have sex. Sophie becomes more and more desperate with each pregnancy, feeling that she’d rather die than have another child. She starts talking to the ghost of Alma, who tells her she should self-abort. The most prominent piece of furniture, a bed, becomes symbolic of both the sex and the punishment it inflicts on the women.

Sophie also addresses the audience directly, particularly the “ladies,” driving home some point about the terrible dilemma that turns the pleasures of sexual intimacy and the wonders of childbirth into elements of destruction. The play subtly reminds us that relatively simple solutions such as condoms, birth control pills and legal, medicallysafe abortions lie not too far in the future.

The acting is excellent across the board. We lose some sympathy for Jonny as the play progresses, but Briganti manages to maintain some of the charm that hooked the sisters, so the character never becomes completely iredeemable. (Moscovitch tries to bolster Jonny’s emotional position at one point by having him lose his job and become involved in union activities and the class struggle, but those plot elements go nowhere.)

Wright’s Alma, while alive, is a really strong character, and as a ghost Wright makes her a truly haunting presence. Henderson shows great range in moving from the naïve kid with a deep crush on Jonny, to the harried mother of three or four fighting literally for her life, to the narrator addressing the audience as if in a 1920s TED talk about birth control.

Not a big fun show but an important reminder of the dystopian alternatives to legal abortion and contraception.


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