HOUSTON: There are happy anniversaries, and then there are less happy ones. Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre‘s new production of The Drowning Girls happens to mark a positively eerie centennial: The show opened in mid-July and will run through Aug. 1—almost precisely the dates when, 100 years ago, one of England’s most infamous serial killers, George Joseph Smith, stood trial and was executed for drowning three consecutive wives. That historic case is the subject of this Canadian play by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson, and Daniela Vlaskalic, which had its premiere in 1999, and again in an expanded version in 2008 that has since been performed all over the world.
According to director Jon Harvey, who’s helming the new staging at Mildred’s Umbrella, the slew of identical cases, dubbed the “Brides of the Bath Murders,” became something like an early 20th-century version of the O.J. Simpson trial, with townspeople lining up outside the Old Bailey in London to catch a glimpse of the harrowing perpetrator. The media at the time portrayed the victims of Smith’s wrath as being callow and senseless girls, but in The Drowning Girls Smith’s three wives come back to life to tell their side of the story.
“There was a shortage of men in England after World War I, and a lot of women were becoming spinsters, which is a social stigma,” said Mildred’s artistic director Jennifer Decker. “Also, their fathers or other male relatives controlled their money and everything they did. So getting married was their escape, and the play really focuses on that– -the reason why they fell for this guy, as opposed to being stupid or naïve. That is one of the things I really love about it.”
Using text from the actual 1915 trial, the play’s disturbing true story is dramatized in a breakneck style that director Harvey described as “a roller-coaster piece of theatre. There is no real time to come up for air,” said Harvey.
No air indeed: The stage is lined with three bathtubs, each filled with water from an overhanging showerhead; a tech crew is on hand to check the temperature of the water before the house opens.
On top of the waterlogged costumes, slippery theatre decks, and tricky maneuvering in and out of clawfoot tubs, the show’s three actresses take on a plethora of roles, not only those of murdered wives Margaret Lofty, Alice Burnham, and Bessie Mundy. With a flick of wet hair, a gesture of mustache grooming, and a low Cockney voice, the actresses take on the role of George Joseph Smith— sometimes in unison—for an eerie portrayal of the murderer.
The seemingly grisly subject matter is not keeping audiences away, any more than it deterred rubberneckers at the Old Bailey.
“None of the violence is actually shown—there is one section where the drowning is demonstrated, but there is no violence or language,” said Decker. “Children have seen the play and have been mesmerized. It is a historical play showing how the oppression of women is still here; the women feel kind of modern.”
Accordingly, in tandem with the production will be post-show panel discussions featuring counselors from the Houston Area Women’s Center, a domestic violence counselor for the District Attorney’s office, and one featuring attorneys, as Smith’s case is taught in law schools; it is regarded as the first case to bring about a conviction based on repeat offenses.
For both its social import and its thrilling staging, Harvey said, a show like The Drowning Girls “is what you got into theatre for. It has the chills, it has the laughs—it is quite fun to have worked on.”