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What a Young Wife Ought to Know: an extraordinary journey from hilarity to harrowing - Drew Rowsome - MyGayToronto

What a Young Wife Ought to Know: an extraordinary journey from hilarity to harrowing
24 March 2018

by Drew Rowsome
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Liisa Repo-Martell as Sophie materializes on the smoke-choked stage. Rebecca Parent as her sister Alma, though we don't know that yet, embraces her from behind. Alma lets go, taking Sophie's cloak, like a manager urging a prize-fighter into the ring, and disappears. Sophie speaks directly to us and within seconds she has won the battle, she has charmed and engaged every lady and gentleman in the house. 

The monologue at the heart of What a Young Wife Ought to Know is, by itself, a remarkable performance, a fusion of text and actor. Like playwright Hannah Moscovitch's Bunny, the woman at the centre of the story, tells the story, takes us into her confidence, makes us laugh and then breaks our hearts. Spotlights pinpoint playing spaces in the fog and the story comes further to life as Sophie interacts with her sister and the man she finds irresistible and impossibly handsome, Johnny. The past conjured out of fog and confusion.

The desolate Ottawa of the 1920s and '30s is evoked simply with minimal props but Sophie narrates from the present, an otherworldly present. Repo-Martell moves seamlessly from narrator to complex character. She is naive but far from simple or, as she brands herself, "mad." The basic facts of life - of sex, procreation and love - have just been withheld because she is a woman and shouldn't know such things. The lack of information has devastating consequences.

The plot is simple but should not be spoiled, it unfolds in a hypnotic dream-like haze punctuated by blazing emotions that hurt to watch. The desire and affection between Sophie and Johnny is palpable, aching and so believably incarnated that it is beautiful and painful. There is genuine erotic heat, thwarted and denied but so inflamed it can't help but burn. David Patrick Flemming is breathtakingly charming and as handsome as Sophie says, and his fumbling struggles to connect their dilemma to a larger explanation bridges the decades in a subtle but pointed way.

Director Christian Barry has the trio move and speak in a tightly choreographed motion that is ballet and poetry made into reality. There are moments where props or lighting cues aren't capable of sustaining the spell, but the flow is so relentless that they elide past. The conspiratorial laughter grows uneasy and then uncomfortable and finally broken. For such a powerful play brought to life by astounding performances, the lack of a standing ovation from an opening night audience seemed odd. Until I realized that I, and those around me, were stunned, shaken and unsure how to react, unable to move. 

Moscovitch has an incredible gift of delivering a humorous gentle tale that slowly winds around an audience's heart before biting down with fangs of venom. What a Young Wife Ought to Know is hilarious and harrowing, intimately endearing and lacerating. Never have I seen an initially boisterous crowd of theatre mavens, file so quietly out of a theatre. Not deflated, not elated, just irrevocably moved. 

What a Young Wife Ought to Know continues until Sat, April 7 at Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Ave. crowstheatre.com

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