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on October 16, 2016 at 6:17 AM
“The Drowning Girls” isn’t a jump into the deep end.
It’s more of a slow wade toward submersion.
The Bag & Baggage production is based on the crimes of serial killer and bigamist George Joseph Smith, who murdered three wives in three years from 1912 to 1914. He was hanged for his crimes in 1915.
Smith preyed on lonely, vulnerable women desperate for love in a time when a woman’s worth was closely tied to her ability to serve as a wife and mother. In each case, Smith had the woman transfer her money to him, take out an insurance policy on her own life and name him the sole beneficiary of her will.
In each case the wife died mysteriously in a bathtub.
The play explains how Smith drowned each of his wives without them making a sound. When I saw this explained onstage I thought, “Surely, there’s no way you can drown like that.” I’ll save you the online searching time after the show: It’s true. Detectives really did test their theories of the drownings on female swimmers. They really did discover the killer’s method, and the Smith case really was significant in the establishment of forensic science.
But “The Drowning Girls” isn’t a procedural about Smith. He never makes an appearance except as a looming outline projected behind the women.
This abstract play focuses on giving voice to his victims: Bessie Mundy (played by Jessi Walters), Alice Burnham (played by Autumn Buck) and Margaret Lofty (played by Jessica Geffen).
When we meet “the girls,” they’ve already drowned, and they’re in their own tubs and their own worlds.
At the onset, it’s unclear who these women are (and one suspects they don’t know who they are themselves). The three actresses, who make up the entire cast, portray dozens of characters, so the start of the show is disorienting.
But Buck, Walters and Geffen slide into the different personas with precision – particularly when they become their killer – and after the first 15 minutes or so, audiences will have no trouble keeping things straight.
Slowly, the women realize who they are and we learn what happened to them. The story builds to a crescendo and ends like a splash of cold water to the face.
One leaves with the sense that we end exactly where we began.
Strengths: The set and lighting design, by Megan Wilerson and Jim Ricks-White, immerse the audience in the women’s watery purgatory. Sheets of paper dangling across the stage dance in the light like falling rain or rippling water. And they remind the audience of the real-life court transcripts, letters and wills that form the basis of the tale.
Weaknesses: This play is slow to start. Literally. I suspected there were some technical difficulties that delayed things in the opening, but director Scott Palmer told me after the show it’s all intentional. He wants the audience a little uncomfortable from the start. Mission accomplished, there.
There are a few points where the script fails to deliver a compelling narrative. The strongest moments are when one woman is recalling her life and the other two actresses play auxiliary roles. But there are times when all three actresses aren’t their main characters, and it provides a muddy story line. What’s the perspective in this purgatory?
Memorable quote: “I am amazed at the effect a wedding ring had on my entire existence,” Bessie says. What an understatement, not just foreshadowing her death, but also expressing how necessary a marriage — any marriage — was to the validity of a woman’s life a hundred years ago.
Takeaway: Go see it. It’s weird, well-acted theater that will make you think. This isn’t a date-night movie. You will be uncomfortable. You will want to mull over your observations on sexism, femininity and the afterlife over a glass of red wine. If you’re brave, you might want to soothe your post-play self with a warm bath.
“The Drowning Girls,” Bag & Baggage
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 31
Where: The Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St., Hillsboro