Women in tubs reaveal all in The Drowning Girls, at Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre.
The Drowning Girls (Alumnae Theatre Company) is written by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic, and directed by Taryn Jorgenson. It is the story of the notorious Brides in the Bath killer, George Joseph Smith, told from the perspective of Alice, Bessie, and Margaret, three women who loved him and who paid for that love with their lives.
The audience enters the theatre via a crime scene. The three actors, limbs askew, lie drowned in three separate bathtubs, a grotesque recasting of the ceremonial marriage bed.
The play begins with loud gasps and splashing water as the trio resurrect, rising to tell their stories of how their husband, Smith, already legally married, married them under an assumed name then murdered them for their money.
In each case, the women share their experiences of being vulnerable, insured, and isolated from their families, swept off their feet before signing everything over to their husband in their last will and testament. In short order, Smith drowns them.
In each case the actors adopt different characters to enhance each woman’s reconstruction. Each actor plays the bigamist husband as well as family members, innkeepers, members of Scotland Yard and court dignitaries. The character shifts are subtle and are often done with a small change in accent and pace.
The court scene where George Joseph Smith is convicted and sentenced to death by hanging is just campy enough to relieve us from what could have been a boring recitation of the court transcript.
Ed Rosing’s set design is minimal: three bathtubs occupy the stage above which hang three garlanded shower heads. They are used to dampen the women when their personal accounts become too fanciful. At the head of each tub lies a pauper’s headstone where the women write their final goodbyes.
Rosing’s lighting design is dark and haunting and transports us back to an era before electricity and indoor plumbing.
Props are kept in the bathtubs and are sopping wet when produced contributing to the theme of pervasive dampness.
Adam, my partner in crime, enjoyed the cohesion of the play; every exchange between the characters, every prop, every piece of evidence serves a purpose and gets woven together into the historical fabric of the story.
As unattached thirtysomethings, we both connected with the sentiment of the spinster and the need these women had to feel loved, wanted and special, like they belonged and “like I mattered”.
Even though the events of the play are 100 years old, societal expectations still lurk beneath the surface of liberation and independence today.
My only criticism relates to character development. They are masterful storytellers but beyond their desperation, anger, guilt and heartbreak, we never learn who they are. We never get to know who they were before their murders.
There are genuine moments of laughter in The Drowning Girls but it is the quintessential example of dashed dreams and lowered expectations. It raises important questions such as: How could these women have been so foolish? What do you do if a loved one is being swindled? What goes through your mind in that last crowded moment of consciousness?
As newlyweds, we hope our spouse won’t drown us in the bath the day after our wedding. Sadly, we can’t always get what we want.
- The Drowning Girls is playing at Alumnae Theatre, Studio (70 Berkeley Street) till December 1, 2012
- Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee only on Sunday at 2:00pm.
- Tickets 2 for 1 Wednesdays, $20 Thursday to Saturday, Sunday PWYC
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, CASH ONLY (box office does not accept credit or debit cards), by phone at 416-364-4170 (Box 1), by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.totix.ca
Photo of Tennille Read, Emily Opal Smith and Jennifer Neales by Dahlia Katz