George Joseph Smith has long been associated with what is known as the “brides in the bath murders” that occurred in England in 1912, 13 and 14. He began as a petty thief for which he was sent to a reformatory at the age of nine. From there he went to prison for swindling and theft. In the course of his adult life he committed bigamy seven times (each time stealing everything he could from his various “wives”) and was convicted of one murder, Bessie Williams, (but suspected in two others, Alice Smith and Margaret Lloyd) for which he was hung on Friday the 13th in August of 1915 at the age of 43.
The play “The Drowning Girls” now playing in the Storefront Studio Theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre could be called an intimate portrait of the man by the women he murdered for seemingly small insurance settlements, but it is really much more than that. It tells the tale of England (and for that matter the world) and how single women were treated and abused during that time. In some modern countries the same still holds true.
At the turn of the century, a woman could not vote, own property, run for office or serve as a juror. When married, their dowry was given to the husband and the women were treated as possessions. Spousal abuse was common (the “rule of thumb” was a law that restricted the size of the stick used to punish the wife to be no larger than the man’s thumb). Women were demanded to be docile, obedient, soft spoken and domesticated as well as wear torturous clothing that forced the male idea of a perfect figure, those who were not or did not ended up unmarried, alone, uncared for and eventually dying an early death.
It was this type of society that allowed a man such as Smith to prey on innocent and gullible spinsters who were an easy mark for his charm. At first, his criminal acts only included bilking the women out of their life savings then in 1912 he changed his tactic to include an insurance policy and the murder of his wife by drowning her in the bath tub.
The three actors: Natalie Green as Alice, Sarah Kunchik as Bessie and Jaime Bouvier as Margaret combine to give a spirited (if somewhat soggy) performance. It will be amazing if the trio can survive the play’s run without a sniffle. It is also any wonder how the three can stay on their feet while dancing across wet boards and floor as well as jumping in and out of the three antique bath tubs. For the most part they give a splendid performance but at times it gets a bit shrill (grant you, we are talking about the ladies being murdered so some slack can be given concerning their enthusiasm in hating the man).
As for the set and costuming it was of a higher standard than normally found in such intimate settings. The stage consisted of three antique bathtubs (complete with feet) with the center tub's top jutting towards the audience and the two on the sides at angles. The tubs rested on three risers with the center riser being slightly taller than the side ones and covered with old wooden flooring. Across the back of the stage was a white backdrop that helped diffuse the various light gimmicks used to give atmosphere (mostly blinking and steady blue lights). There is a clothes line that runs across the back portion of the stage that holds the wedding garments that the ladies dress into as they talk. Blank oil paper the size of newspaper is used (mainly for its durability) to represent the newspapers the ladies read from at various times. Various lace accessories hang from strings on either side of the stage nearest the audience. Various buckets, cups, water cans and pails are positioned around the border of the stage area partially filled with water as are the tubs. There is a single light in each tub to add a mystical air and three bare bulbs hang from the "ceiling" over the tubs and blink on and off for effect. The costuming is representative of wedding garb of the era, that is to mean that it is layer upon layer upon layer of clothing until the cloth itself looks to suffocate the women. Lastly, gallons of water are used during the production.
Beefs and Flubs: There was special note in the press releases and such concerning the “music” that was to be performed during the performance. To be honest, it was not really that noticeable during the work. It may have been the intention of those involved to underplay it but I had higher expectations.
At times (and especially when describing the final hanging fate of George Joseph Smith) the overacting virus seemed to have hit the stage giving everyone there a bad case of the “toos” (too loud, too fast and too overly done).
Prude Alert: Although no foul language is used, it is a subject matter that would not sit well with the young or those sensitive to such situations. We are talking about the murder of three innocent women, the bigamy of seven and death by hanging for the culprit. You make the call on this one.
Shooting From The Lip (In My Opinion): “The Drowning Girls” is the type of touchstone work that we need to see from time to time to measure just how far civilized society has advanced. Has much changed since 1912? What rights do women in our society have concerning being single or being married? What is there that needs to be done to improve the situation? Are women truly protected against spousal abuse? Come see this play, but be prepared to think afterwards.
Cast and Crew of “The Drowning Girls”
The Drowning Girls was written by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson & Daniela Vlaskalic. The CPT production is directed by Melissa Therese Crum, 2013/14 Joan Yellen Horvitz Director Fellow.
The three woman cast of The Drowning Girls are Jaime Bouvier (Margaret), Natalie Green (Alice) and Sarah Kunchik (as Bessie).
Complete creative and production team includes Melissa Therese Crum (Director), Inda Blatch-Geib (Costume Designer), Ben Gantose (Lighting Designer), Val Kozlenko (Set Designer), Sam Fisher (Sound Design), Donna Pedaci (Dramaturg) and Cameron Cerny (Stage Manager).
Ticket & Show Information
“The Drowning Girls” runs through May 3, 2014. Performances are Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday at 7:00 p.m. in CPT’s Storefront Studio Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44102.
Tickets are $12 – $18.
All Thursday and Monday shows are just $12! Student and Senior discounts ($3 off) are available for Friday and Saturday performances.
**Every Friday is FREE BEER FRIDAY at CPT. Audience members are invited to mingle with the artists after the show and enjoy a drink or two on CPT.**
Tickets are available for purchase at www.cptonline.org or by phone at (216) 631-2727 x 501.