Take the Edwardians’ morbid fascination with death, murder and the macabre, along with what we know about the powerless and constrained lives of middle-class women (particularly unmarried women) early in the twentieth century, then add black humor, some woman-to-woman celebration, a bit of mockery and touches of real sorrow, and you have The Drowning Girls, a regional premiere at the Arvada Center’s Black Box Theater.
George Joseph Smith has a prominent place on the roster of England’s luridly famous murderers. He began with embezzlement and multiple bigamous marriages, entered under false names; ultimately, three of the women — Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Elizabeth Lofty — became victims in what came to be called the “bride in the bath murders.” All three killings followed a similar pattern: Having thoroughly investigated her finances, Smith would first convince his new bride to visit doctors. Hysteria was the catch-all term for anything that ailed a woman in those days, and physicians’ diagnoses of fits, weeping and headaches were conveniently vague — vague enough to explain why a patient might suddenly be found dead in a bathtub. The baths of the time were narrow and short, however, and even once murder was suspected, no one could explain how a healthy woman could be drowned in one of these without marks of a severe struggle on her body. Until a forensic expert figured it out: Smith would seize his victim by her feet and pull her head underwater in one swift, relentless gesture; she would drown within minutes.
Grim stuff, but The Drowning Girls — written by Canadian authors Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic — isn’t grim. The play begins with lighthearted waltz music, and then legs and arms rise from three filled bathtubs on the stage as Kate Gleason’s Margaret, Emily Van Fleet’s Alice and Jessica Robblee’s Bessie — all still faceless — engage in a brief, hilarious parody of synchronized swimming. They emerge, laughing, to tell us their stories, including how they met Smith and why they were drawn to him: “I felt understood”; he seemed “a man of independent means”; “he took my breath away.” Each actor takes on several roles in the narrative — from a landlady to a concerned mother to a doctor — always returning to her own role and her own brimming bathtub, with the ominous spigot above it.
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Under the direction of Lynne Collins, the acting is terrific. Nothing you can find online about this case tells you anything much about these women as real flesh-and-blood people, but in the hands of Gleason, Robblee and Van Fleet, they come to vivid life: idealistic young Alice, tougher-minded Bessie, and Margaret, who’s older and a little worn down by life. The script is overtly feminist in the satiric tone it takes to the mores of the day, but it’s also more subtly so in the way it shows these one-time victims coming together in mutual comfort, shared strength and understanding in the strange, watery afterlife they inhabit. While Smith’s actual victims may be mouldering in their graves, the women we see right in front of us are full of life, even joy. They haven’t forgotten what happened, but they’ll be damned if they let murder define them.
The set, designed by Brian Mallgrave with lighting by Jon Olson, is a stunner, too: a floor of water and those three bathtubs. Yes, the actors perform soaking wet, and it’s exhilarating, particularly when one of them flings back her head and a glistening stream of water arcs from her hair. In the background hang three equally soaked wedding dresses, a symbol of what awaited Smith’s brides, and perhaps also a reminder of his ultimate death by hanging. The expressive costumes are by Meghan Anderson Doyle.
This strange, challenging and brilliant little play is exactly the kind of risk a black-box theater should undertake — and the Arvada Center’s has undertaken it in style.
The Drowning Girls, presented by the Arvada Center Black Box Theater through May 21, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.