By JOHN DeMERS
Brutal, eerie, disturbing and at times unexpectedly poetic, The Drowning Girls is a personal invitation to spend an hour and five minutes in the presence of pure evil. And unlike many killers in our own recent events, there is little to no sense that the murderer here is “disturbed” or “mentally ill.” No, in the real-life England of 1915, George Joseph Smith was convicted of marrying three different women under three different names, taking all their money and buying life insurance on them, and then murdering each in a bathtub in a manner that passed for accidental. Almost. Smith was hanged just over a month after his conviction, still claiming to be innocent.
This play about the three women (indeed, Smith himself is never seen) was actually written by three women for, naturally, three women to perform. That, however, doesn’t limit its storytelling to three characters. Patricia Duran, Courtney Lomelo and Miranda Herbert Aston also play everybody the victims come in contact with – friends and family, their killer husband, police investigators and, in one of the show’s finest moments, a pair of doctors called in to assess the women’s conditions while they’re still alive. With Cockney accents on overdrive, these moments are funny – but also dark and frightening considering that we all know the outcome.
As directed by Jon Harvey with set design by Jodi Bobrovsky, lighting by Greg Starbird and costumes by Lindsay Burns, the Mildred’s Umbrella production is as gutsy in its minimalism as in its subject matter and treatment. There are simply three antique bathtubs with showers that actually work overhead, water in the tub from which the victims emerge and to which they return repeatedly, and a ghost-white backdrop that evokes a trio of weathered tombstones. The set is all about function, but it ends up being a moving, unforgettable form as well.
There is a political edge to The Drowning Girls, a kind of inevitable and natural feminism speaking of a time shortly before most of the advances in the history of women’s rights started being made. While, most assuredly, nothing can probably protect any of us from a single madman bent on our destruction, had these three women possessed more options, more freedom and more societal meaning in their lives, they would never have been such easy prey.