A stirring tale of romance and drowning

By Stephanie Mamayson

Lies, money, deceit, and death–it’s the perfect, albeit predictable, formula for a murder mystery. But it’s not necessarily the tale that stands out, it’s the way that the story is told. Based on the story of English serial killer George Joseph Smith, The Drowning Girls is the fifth and final offering in the Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites Festival. The play’s unembellished and simple approach allows the actors to take centre stage on this theatrical journey, laying bare the dark and twisted side of love.

The play begins with three women emerging from the water in white, claw-footed bath tubs, coughing and gasping for air. Meet Bessie, Margaret, and Alice: all brides, all dead. As the story unfolds, so does the mystery of how these women came to be dead.

Early on in the production, we are taken through a frenetic and somewhat confusing series of events, from Smith’s early life to the ladies he wooed before the three. The play then continues on in at a steadier pace and we are introduced to the main characters. Bessie (Vanessa Sabourin) meets Henry Williams on a bridge and shortly after they are married he leaves her because she has given him “the bad disease.” When he returns Bessie goes with him in spite of warnings from her family. Margaret (Natascha Girgis) meets John Lloyd in the park and marries him two days later. Alice (co-author Beth Graham) meets George Smith at church during a rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee.”

After being married, the women are cut off from their families and surrender themselves to their new husbands. From here, the story doubles back to connect these circumstances to the play’s tragic beginnings.

The set is stark and barebones at best, with tubs, showerheads, pails, and newspapers as the main props, but that’s all that is needed to get the story across. The capable acting of Girgis, Graham and Sabourin carries the story along with each woman playing multiple secondary characters. At times, the play is thoroughly creepy and at others, the audience cannot help but laugh. Although the play goes though many leaps in time and storyline, the narrative remains intact and it’s easy to follow when one woman’s tale ends and the other begins.

Each bride expresses slight hesitation at the prospect of marrying a man they barely know, but the negative stigma associated with being an old maid outweighs their fear. Girgis, Graham, and Sabourin all inject life into their doomed characters and play them with such an endearing innocence that you empathize with them and understand their willingness to believe in marriage so quickly. Whether it is true adoration or desperation that drives these women to leap head-first into marriage, The Drowning Girls is an eerie look at how love can take your breath away.

The Drowning Girls runs at Big Secret Theatre until Sun., Mar. 9. Tickets at Ticketmaster.

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