Context Is Thrown Out With the Bathwater in a Stylish The Drowning Girls

The set up:

For most people, time spent in a hot bath is meant to soak away the day’s troubles. For Bessie Munday, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lloyd, time spent in a bath meant soaking away the days, permanently. All three women were the victims of the “Brides in the Bath Murders” committed by George Joseph Smith between 1912 and 1914.

In each case, Smith married and conned the women into handing him their life savings. As if that weren’t enough, the women were then convinced to take out a hefty life insurance policy naming their husband as sole beneficiary. After the financials were securely in place and once he had publically raised suspicions about the women’s likelihood of seizures, Smith drowned his brides in the tub.

This not so happily ever after, violent tale gets a modern docudrama interpretation by Canadian creators Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic in their 2008 play, The Drowning Girls. Originally an Edmonton Fringe Festival effort in 1999, The Drowning Girls premiered as a mainstage production at the Alberta Theatre Projects now defunct playRites festival in 2008 and has since gone on to win numerous awards and play in houses across North America.

Part ghost story, part historical reimagining, The Drowning Girls attempts to give these fatally soggy women a voice as they compare and contrast how they met their watery end and indict the man that did it.

The execution:

From the moment Bessie (Patricia Duran), Margaret (Miranda Herbert Aston) and Alice (Courtney Lomelo) emerge gasping for breath from one of the three onstage claw footed rusty bathtubs, swathed in moody lighting and accompanied by eerie instrumental music, it’s apparent that stylized and creepily chic are going to be the buzzwords of the evening. As will wet and dripping. The onstage tubs are filled with water and the performers spend all of the hour and small change of the show dipping in and out of their watery coffins recounting how they came to know, love, be swept off their feet and marry the man that would eventually kill them.

Bessie was innocent but lonely. Terribly aware of how her heretofore solitary life rendered her “shunned and ignored.” She needed and wanted a man by her side. Alice on the other hand needed adventure and believed that a man was the only way for her to experience life outside the confines of her parents’ home. Margaret wasn’t even sure she wanted to marry but got so caught up in the whirlwind one day courtship that led to a quick but romantic proposal that she too said yes to a marriage.

The manner in which the woman met George might have been different, but one thing was identical in each case. These were vulnerable women, easily isolated from their family and with independent money under their control. They were all the perfect targets as they realize now, dripping with death onstage. Not with hang wringing sorrow, but with a ‘I can’t believe I was so foolish’ mindset that lets allows the script a kind of levity and bouts of occasional dark humour while never losing the fact that these women died a horrid death marked not just by drowning, but also betrayal.

We learn of all this as the ghost brides recount their stories for us and each other round robin style with the performers taking turns playing the supporting characters in each other’s lives including George himself. Or Henry or John as he was also called depending on which bride he was conning at the time. We also learn a bit about George’s criminal past from the women as they snapshot us through his delinquent youth swiping apples, to his young adult penchant for stealing money, to his eventual graduation to murder for profit.

All of this bath hopping, water logging, character morphing, rotating timelines and overlapping storytelling gets expert stewardship from Director Jon Harvey who brings a simple but sumptuous coolness to the production. Nothing here is rushed or superfluous and Harvey has a deft hand at taking some of the script’s overly poetic language and stripping the pretense out of it.

Duran, Aston and Lomelo dressed in their sopping wet wedding gowns, benefit greatly from the freedom the sleek direction affords. Together they deliver terrifically stripped down but compelling and polished performances, whether playing the drowned brides or any of the many supporting characters in the story. Kudos here must also go to Dialect Consultant Lisa Villegas for gifting the performers with the ability to take on numerous British accents ranging from mid to lower class without one misstep along the way.

But while the missteps don’t occur in the production or the performances, they are certainly present in the play itself. Graham, Tomlinson and Vlaskalic do a bang up job of telling us what happened to these women, but fail to provide any commentary or context on why it happened and most importantly why we should care beyond a morbid car crash rubber necking kind of curiosity.

Yes we are told that women had very few choices back then. They couldn’t vote or show their ankles or have an opinion on anything, so they married. We also understand that George had a checkered past that ramped up to murder for financial gain. But at no point do the playwrights comment on the circumstances the women found themselves in or make us see them as any anything but gullible and and naive. Nor do they examine what it says about a particular society that George got away his actions so often. The writers instead seem content to let the facts stand for themselves, leaving any context or deeper examination off the table. The result is a ‘this happened and then that happened’ kind of story telling with a pseudo revenge element squished into the last few minutes of the play that no matter how chicly presented and superbly performed, feels ultimately tepid and unsatisfactory.

The verdict:

If you watch, but don’t think too hard, you can easily be swept up in how good everything looks in this show, how well it’s performed and what a creepy tale of serial murder it is. And at just a few minutes over an hour with so many visual distractions onstage (like when the shower heads over the tubs are going to turn on again and soak the performers) it’s easy in the moment not to wonder why we aren’t given more bubble in our bath.

We’re told that this production times with the 100th year anniversary of George Joseph Smith’s trial (yes he was eventually caught and convicted) and no doubt we’re are grateful that a killer was brought to justice. But that feeling should be more than simply a passive pleasure. We have spent 108 minutes with his victims. We watched their seduction, their abuse and their demise. We also watched as they cackled at George’s final comeuppance.

The women here get the last laugh in a way. It then seems wrong then that we don’t feel all that chuffed about it.

The Drowning Girls continues through August 1 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets online at or by phone at 832-463-0409. $12 - $20.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman