Directed by Melanie Keller
Produced by Signal Ensemble Theatre, Chicago
How to Have Fun with Murder Respectfully
One hundred years ago, the English serial killer George Joseph Smith was captured, convicted, and executed for the murders of three of his wives. Bessie Munday Williams, Alice Burnham Smith, and Margaret Lofty Lloyd had each been found, by Smith, drowned in a bathtub, leaving him with all their money, only a few days or hours after writing their wills. What is interesting about The Drowning Girls, a 2008 Canadian play being produced in the Midwest for the first time by Signal Ensemble, is that it is not a thriller, or a crime drama as we know them. Instead, it is a dark, but playful, recounting of the frame of mind each woman was in, as told by herself.
The show begins with director Melanie Keller accomplishing something that is very difficult to do well: establishing mood by having the audience enter in an unusual way. Right before the show begins, we are all led together through a tall, narrow passageway into Signal’s auditorium, and find three tubs, each containing a still woman. To be their underworld, scenic designer Buck Blue has constructed a greenish-grey cavern that feels like a sewer, accompanied by haze and Michael C. Smith’s eerie, dim lighting. It’s an atmosphere perfect for horror, but, when the actresses arise from their watery repose, they engage in an Esther Williams-like dance, and play catch with a bar of soap; another difficult thing to do.
The women, played by Katherine Schwartz, Meghan Reardon, and Anne Sheridan Smith, explain why they fell for their deadly husband’s charms. They were aging, lonely, and afraid of becoming old maids. Inexperienced in relationships, they were easily swayed by flattery and romantic declarations. Bessie had been married to the man she knew as “Henry Williams” for a few years, but he walked out in the middle, accusing her of giving him a venereal disease, and only reappeared shortly before killing her. Alice had been married to him for only two weeks after having known him for a few months, and thirty-eight year old Margaret married “John Lloyd” less than a week after having met him, and only lasted a single day. Foolish, no doubt, they admit it, but there was no place in society for middle-class women with no families or jobs, and they were desperately lonely.
They say this all with some wistful pity for themselves and each other, but keep us amused with a multitude of props (designed by Christopher J. Neville) they pull out of their tubs to illustrate their stories. While explaining their personal histories, they mimic George Joseph Smith and their families in for the most part hilariously exaggerated manner. Reardon in gives a particularly wry performance imagining Smith as a child and young man, stealing from his mother and earlier wives and generally being obnoxious. Costume designer Rachel Lambert supplies the performers with bridal gowns to slough on and off, soaked as they are. It’s a bitter-sweet moment struggling into those dresses, as are the games the women play with each other, recalling their hopes and mocking themselves for it. Anthony Ingram’s sound design includes the killer’s ritualistic playing of the harmonium, which he did after each murder, and is an unsettling underscore.
As funny as this presentation is, it never loses sight of how cruelly these women were betrayed. A lot of the devices Keller and the writers employ are similar to those used in activist theatre. That serial killers are bad isn’t a controversial opinion, though, and while there are moments that illustrate pervasive and pseudo-scientific sexism effecting the women’s choices, or lack thereof, the show doesn’t preach like you need to be convinced to abandon your Edwardian ways. Seeing these devices in a character-driven work felt strange to me at first, but the cast charmed me with their skill, energy, and balance between sincerity and humor, so that the absurdity and darkness of the story feed into each other. The Drowning Girls takes an unusual approach, and Signal took a risk by staging it, but it pays off as a fun, odd, and genuinely empathetic piece of theatre.
Reviewed May 7, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see The Drowning Girls page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W Berenice Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $23, with discounts for industry, students, seniors, and groups; to order, call 773-698-7389. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through June 6. Running time is seventy minutes with no intermission.