by Lynn on November 8, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Wren Theatre in association with Rhyno Equity Group. Plays until Nov. 12, 2023.

Written by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic

Directed by Tatum Lee

Technical supervisor, Gillian Macleod

Cast: Amanda D’Souza

Adrianna Prosser

Vikki Velenosi

A challenging play given a bold production full of interesting directorial decisions that don’t always work, but the commitment from all involved is impressive.

The Story. The Drowning Girls recounts the story of Bessie, Alice and Margaret, three of the many wives of George Joseph Smith, an Edwardian opportunist who made a living marrying women, taking out life insurance policies for them and subsequently drowning them in their baths. Based on true events.

The Production. A lace curtain goes from one side of the stage to the other. Behind it are three old-fashioned-claw-foot white bathtubs. There is a body in each, submerged in some water. The legs of each body drape over the end of the tub. There is a silver looking box of sorts at the foot of each bathtub on the floor.  

Three ghostly brides surface from the bathtubs, to gather evidence against their womanizing, murderous, husband by reliving the shocking events leading up to their deaths. As they make their case, they discover how they have been victimized not only by George Joseph Smith, the husband in question, but also by society at large.

Bessie (Vikki Velenosi), Alice (Amanda D’Souza) and Margaret (Adrianna Prosser) are submerged wearing white undergarments. Director Tatum Lee has each character wear white contact lenses that create that ghost-like-zombie-like look. An interesting choice but perhaps a bit out of place, if not distracting, since much of the show is taken up with the characters telling us the story that led up to their meeting their husbands, being charmed by him, swept off their feet and quickly married after which they saw his true, mean self and then their deaths.

Much of the characters’ first scenes are presented with the women in their tubs with their backs to the audience, talking of their lives and recollections. Interesting idea, to present the characters with them facing away from us. The rest of the production is presented with the characters facing full on.

One might ask: “How is it possible that three mature women could be so fooled by a man into marrying him after knowing him for a few days or weeks, taking out a life insurance policy leaving everything to him, should she die, and cutting their families out of their lives because the families object to the man?” How is that possible?

It’s possible because it’s the early part of the last century and to be unmarried in 1912, 1913 and 1914 is an embarrassment. At all cost, a woman did not want to be called ‘a spinster.’ It’s possible because George Joseph Smith (one of his aliases) knew how to charm mature women and make them think they were desirable rather than almost past the chance of getting married. Getting married was what a woman was meant to do. She could lament not being able to work or vote, but in society at that time, getting married was her main job. George Joseph Smith knew that and preyed on vulnerable women to look at him as their only hope for respectability.

We hear of horror stories like that. Playwrights Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlakalic put a human face to these stories along with humour and wit. The cast of Bessie (Vikki Velenosi), Alice (Amanda D’Souza) and Margaret (Adrianna Prosser) also put heart and soul to that human face. In one case the husband insists on taking care of his wife’s money because ‘she doesn’t have pockets.’ It’s a feather of a line that floats in the air with such meaning.

Director Tatum Lee’s vision and imagination is certainly industrious and challenging. She created scenes that bring out the angst and uncertainty of these women, illuminated their vulnerability. Lovely work there. But I also found the production often unnecessarily busy and fussy. There is much moving from one tub to another for example, and flitting around the set.  I have faith that with more experience Tatum Lee will realize that less is best.

Comment. My concerns notwithstanding, The Drowning Girls still has resonance. The production is worth a look.             

Wren Theatre in association with Rhyno Equity Group presents:

Opened: Nov. 7, 2023.

Closes: Nov. 12, 2023.

Running time: 80 minutes (no intermission)

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