BWW Review: RTW's THE DROWNING GIRLS Drenches Three Women's Lives In Redemption
Three women--all seduced into marriage and relieved of their lives and fortunes--beautifully retell their rather unfortunate stories in Renaissance Theaterworks (RTW) The Drowning Girls on stage in the Studio Theatre. A play written by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomilnson and Daniela Vlaskalic, the play relates the true story of George Joseph Smith, a man who married three vulnerable maids during England's early 20th century and then immediately drowned them in their own bathtubs.
A trio of single women, Alice, Bessie and Margaret, rise from the depths of clean white, claw foot tubs surrounded by period wedding dresses and veils, symbols of purity and social acceptance in the early 20th century, 1911 to 1914 to be exact. Without a husband and family, single women of any age were shunned, then considered outcasts in society and often to their families. Marriage was the only way to be accepted into the culture and this serial killer Smith preyed on these cultural norms to entrap these women and whatever fortune was theirs. Since women were unable to own property or vote, any inheritance would revert to their husbands after their deaths.
The poetic play places these three women recalling their personal stories from their graves to reclaim their lives after the tragedies, offering them a chance to speak to what has occurred. Smith will be tried and eventually hung for the three drownings, the women vindicated after his trial. With an entire cast debuting at Renaissance in their season opener, a trio of actors typify women at different stages in their lives. Margaret, Marcee Doherty-Elst, views marriage as her last chance for happiness and acceptance, and the actor adds a worldly aura to this character. Susie Duecker captures the youthful exuberance in her adventure into being in love through Alice, marrying this man against her parents wishes. Alice's mother never saw her daughter alive after her marriage. Elyse Edelman's winsome persona in Bessie earnestly believes love and marriage will enrich her life despite the fact her husband leaves and returns after one year's absence.
Each women believed her happiness was secured after the marriage and acceptance into society assured, somewhat similar to how women today often dream of their future weddings, believing in an elusive true love and happy ever after marriage. Sarah E. Ross contains the beauty and innocence of these hopes and dreams on set with a visually stunning production placing the three women like three goddesses on stage in their tubs, or graves, the dresses similar to white burial shrouds. This set complements often lyrical language in describing these women's lives. Doherty-Elst, Duecker and Edelman traverse some difficult stage props moving in and out of these bathtubs with confidence and grace in long wedding gowns, complements of Costume Designer Kristine Sneshkoff, while often being drenched in water---a physically demanding 90 minute, no intermission performance while also conveying the tragedy to their stories.
Director Mallorey Metoxen coordinates these awe inspiring stage movements with chutzpah, an emotional and technically advanced production for a young director. Future performances in the run will be even more inspiring. As Associate Artistic Director for RTW, Metoxen follows in the footsteps of the company's legacy to present stories provoking contemporary consideration. Many older, single women, divorced, never married or widowed, especially of a certain age, can become invisible in today' culture. While stigmatized less than previously seen, their path still provides a more treacherous life when they continually remain prey to contractors and service men, schemers who seek to take advantage of their solo status. While this may save them their physical lives, their dignity and money are placed on the line despite any woman's best efforts to be aware of her current circumstances.
RTW presents a compelling and thought provoking play based on historical truths that connects to modern society--and the circumstances of all women throughout the world. While contemporary women may avoid being literally drowned, they can be murdered for honor or married at 13 for a dowry, or passed over in a career when choosing motherhood. Women today drown in lower wages, poorer maternal mortality, less retirement funds and ancient stereotypes when married, and especially if single. Through this evocative and powerful, even if chilling portrait of three women from the past, Renaissance proves to their audiences women refuse to succumb to society's so called standard cultural norms, whether sexually harassed, as recently seen in the news, or merely hitting those glass ceilings. Similar to Alice, Bessie and Margaret, women will rise to claim their own stories to tell for future generations and redeem themselves.
Renaissance Theaterworks presents The Drowning Girls in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through November 13. For information on a short play reading, Duck, after several performances, pay what you can night, or post show talkbacks after specific performances, or for tickets, please visit: www.r-t-w.com