Written by Jacqueline Firkins, adapted from the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. Directed by Courtenay Dobbie. Produced by UBC Theatre at the Frederic Wood Theatre on November 9. Continues to November 25
There’s a lot to love in UBC Theatre’s newest production, Wives and Daughters. Written by Jacqueline Firkins, adapted from a book of the same name by Elizabeth Gaskell, the story focuses on Molly (Sabrina Vellani), a young woman whose life is thrown into disarray when her widowed father remarries.
Molly’s new stepmother, Hyacinth (Natalie Backerman), is overbearing, obsessed with status, and has a daughter Molly’s age named Cynthia (Daria Banu) who arrives home from boarding school unexpectedly early and not entirely welcome. Molly and Cynthia become fast friends even though they’re markedly different: Molly values truth, honesty, and her independence; Cynthia is beautiful, charming, and almost every man she meets falls in love with her. By the time that Molly realizes she has a crush on her fishing buddy, Roger (Louis Lin), a budding scientist, he’s head over heels for Cynthia. They get engaged, but Cynthia has another secret she’s keeping: she’s actually also promised herself to another man.
Wives and Daughters, the book, was set around 1830, and the play seems to occupy that same time—costumer designer Liz Gao does beautiful work—yet much of the content feels thoroughly contemporary, particularly around the idea of what a patriarchal society values in women. When Hyacinth declares that “after a certain age, a daughter becomes an inconvenience,” she says it through gritted teeth. Marriage was the main goal, particularly marrying “well,” and it’s clear that Hyacinth herself has internalized the words she bitterly spits out at her daughter and stepdaughter.
Though it sags a tiny bit in the middle, and could probably be about 15 minutes shorter, Wives and Daughters is incredibly funny and charming, full of bracing one-liners and biting wit. This is both a tribute to the writing—the fusion of Gaskell’s early feminist inclinations and Firkins’s sharply comedic talent—and to Courtenay Dobbie’s direction of the largely wonderful cast. As headstrong Molly, Vellani is a standout thanks to her winning combination of heart and humour. Backerman brings depth and hilarity to Hyacinth’s cuttingly funny, casual cruelty. Shona Struthers and Heidi Upham also bring great physical comedy to spinster sisters, Phoebe and Dorothy Browning, who have been looking out for Molly since the death of her mother.
Wives and Daughters takes its women characters and their lives seriously, and it’s an incredibly satisfying and gratifying thing to see on stage. Here, love isn’t about the guy getting the girl, but about the girl finding the courage to be honest with herself, a journey with which almost every woman can identify.