Murdered Women Tell Their Stories in Renaissance’s Breathtaking ‘Drowning Girls’
Renaissance Theaterworks’ season opener, The Drowning Girls, is a masterpiece. The script, receiving its Wisconsin premiere, was written by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic and draws on the real life “Brides in the Bath” murders by turn-of-the-century British serial killer George Joseph Smith. The work’s power comes from the fact that this is not Smith’s story; it is a humanization and vindication of the three women who died at his hand.
Masterfully told in a mixture of police procedural (a sort of “trial-logue” of George’s eventual investigation and conviction), lyrical group speech, straight prose and sung passages, the three-woman play reads as an organic exploration of the characters’ psychology and the society that placed them in such a vulnerable position.
Under Mallory Metoxen’s direction, Marcee Doherty-Elst, Susie Duecker and Elyse Edelman furnish a tremendous feat of performance as the three brides. Although the story hinges on their being “used, broken and discarded” in precisely the same ways, these masterful actors show us how each was an individual with unique family background, desire for happiness and specific reasons for being swept away by the charming sociopath.
Doherty-Elst imbues Margaret with the seriousness of the eldest of the three—a woman considered a hopeless spinster at 38. Duecker’s Alice is feisty and fun loving; she brings vivacity and a needed levity to the grim subject matter. Finally, Edelman’s Bessie is sweet, idealistic and anxious. Her pure, childlike energy is an asset to the trio. In an especially jarring passage, Bessie recalls how George abandoned her shortly after marriage, saying she’d given him “The Bad Disorder” (an STD), then sought her out again a year later only to kill her shortly after. “What’s wrong with me?” she wonders, driving home the insidiousness of George’s gaslighting—manipulation by convincing the victim to question her own perception and sanity.
Production values are wondrously effective in Renaissance’s staging. Sound design by Megan Henninger includes recurring pounding from a gavel, an increasingly dissonant version of the wedding march as the women realize they’ve been married in the cheapest, most secretive manner possible and the haunting recurring motif of “Nearer My God to Thee.” The set is a lavish fantasia of gothic horror; Sarah E. Ross’ scenic design and Madelyn Yee’s props include three bathtubs full of water—which the actors gracefully utilize throughout their drenched performance—attractive tiling and sundry memorabilia from the women’s lives before and after meeting George. Kristina Sneshkoff’s costumes are elegant; all white, the pieces stand up to being soaked and provide a beautiful visual throughline.
The subject matter is a tragic and necessary look at some of the most frightening aspects of human psychology, but The Drowning Girls also includes humorous moments and the final message is hopeful: We can lose everything—even life itself—but a story told is a life remembered. Victimization need not rob us of identity, and we are stronger when we tell one another the truth.
Through Nov. 13 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. The Nov. 4 and 6 performances will be followed by the one-woman 15-minute play Duck, starring Flora Coker and presented as part of Renaissance’s ongoing BR!NK series. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit r-t-w.com.