This play is based on a real serial killer and bigamist who was tried, convicted, and hanged in England in 1915. He was responsible for the murders of three of his brides — Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham, and Margaret Lofty.
…compelling and concise. It is unsettling, and the Strand Theatre gives the audience a riveting experience.
Beth Graham, Daniela Vlaskalic, and Charlie Tomlinson take this as their starting point for a play that explores not only the manipulation and murder of women, but the constraints that society places on females that put them in these situations. This play is an indictment of a society that values women only through men’s agency. While watching this story unfold, you might find yourself nodding along because there are still so many expectations and limitations placed on women today.
We meet the three brides, Beatrice “Bessie” Constance Annie Mundy (Acacia Danielsson), Margaret Elizabeth Lofty (Betse Lyons), and Alice Burnham (Mika J. Nakano), as they join up in the afterlife, awakening in bathtubs. Given that they all drowned within weeks of their marriages (and in Margaret’s case — the day after the wedding), the bathtubs are a clever way to immediately link them — and corral them. Their spirits can’t wander far.
Through some rather lovely language, we learn why they married this man. In the pre-WWI period, these girls were respectably of the middle classes (they didn’t seem to work), past the first blush of youth, and living with their parents. Their possible life paths were very few and they admitted their fears of becoming the object of pity and scorn as they aged unmarried. In some ways, George Joseph Smith (they knew him by different names) was their last chance at being deemed worthy by society, and therefore able to receive the protections and rights of their class and status. The fact that they were adult women in their 20s and 30s and are still referred to as girls speaks volumes.
The three actresses have a wonderful chemistry, and play the yearning brides with a lovely combination of wit and innocence. One blames herself for falling for Smith. Even in death, she falls into the expected feminine role of taking on the blame. The actors also portray other characters in snippets that reveal their family situations and their courtship by Smith. As the play progresses, we also get a glimpse of why Smith picked them (all had some money that they controlled) and how he convinced the women to hand over control of their assets and lives to him. It becomes so clear that these sheltered women truly believed they needed a man’s hand to guide them.
The play works well as a feminist manifesto, and does so through the story. It works less well when teasing apart the women’s personalities and characters, but that could be because they still primarily saw themselves through the eyes of others. That view, through the lens of their society, was limited, judgmental, controlling, and very much invested in gender norms. That not much has changed in 2021 is depressingly obvious. Childcare is still seen primarily as women’s work, three women a day are killed by domestic violence, and women are still judged by their dress and behavior out in public.
“The Drowning Girls”’ is directed by Emilie Zelle Holmstock who guides the production with a light touch. The deceptively simple set (three bathtubs with taps and water) was designed by Holmstock and David Shoemaker. The evocative lighting was provided by TJ Lukacsina and the sound by Heiko Spieker. The scenic art — a background of an otherworldly, swirling painting — was created by Holmstock and Mika J. Nakano. The video production by Glenn Ricci was unobtrusive yet allowed us to see expressions that, in the back rows of a theatre, one might miss. It was artfully done.
This play covers a lot of ground in a little more than an hour. Part ghost story, part memorial, and part meditation on women’s place in our world, it is compelling and concise. It is unsettling and the Strand Theatre gives the audience a riveting experience.
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes without intermission.
Show Advisory: Emulation of death, violence against womxn, abuse, gaslighting, misogyny, and serial murder. For mature teens and up.
“The Drowning Girls” runs through March 7, 2021, in a virtual environment, by Strand Theatre Company, Baltimore, MD. For more information, please click here.