Remember the Paul Simon song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”?
Well, the 1999 play, “The Drowning Girls,” offers one (nearly) foolproof way to off your wife.
We never meet the perpetrator. We just learn of his nefarious acts from three of his bathtub-drowned wives.
The tales of these lovely, waterlogged ghosts are spookily the same: whirlwind wooing and isolation from family; quick, short-lived marriage (mere days or weeks) — but not terminated before getting the hapless maid to sign over everything she owns to her new, “irresistible” spouse. Using aliases and ingeniously covering his disgusting deeds, he has conceived of the perfect crime.
Easy as 1, 2, 3: one man, too much greed, three wives. There were probably more than three in his harem, but that’s all Scotland Yard could link and confirm.
This is the real-life story of the monstrous, murderous sociopath George Joseph Smith who, from 1912 to 1914, plunged, submerged and asphyxiated three women in England. In 1915, he met his well-deserved, bone-dry fate — at the end of a rope.
“The Drowning Girls,” written by three Canadian actor/playwrights — Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic — is watery, lyrical and non-linear.
At OnStage Playhouse, the three brides, tightly harnessed in white Edwardian undergarments, emerge sopping wet from three clawfoot tubs, spaced at different heights across the wide OSP stage, backed by diaphanous white curtains. Mannequins sporting bridal gowns greet audiences as they enter (wonderful design by Hsi-an Chen).
Artistic director James P. Darvas does a marvelous job of keeping his excellent performers — Emily Candia, Carla Navarro and Sandra Ruiz — moving fluidly around the space, sometimes ritualistically, as they don and remove their lacy wedding dresses, repeatedly plunge themselves (voluntarily, and not), in the tubs with shower heads that rain down on them.
As they gasp, weep, commiserate and laugh together, these hapless young ladies give vent to a range of emotions, from gleeful joy to rueful sorrow, bitterness and resentment to self-disgust at their own gullibility and naiveté.
There’s an eerie beauty to it all. The text can get a bit repetitive, but then, so were the acts of this opportunistic, womanizing scoundrel. He’s one of several egregious men (all enacted by the women) who disdain the fairer gender in a supercilious, misogynistic manner.
A product of the era? Not quite. Witness recent events in Texas vis à vis women’s rights to their own bodies.
Clocking in at a brisk 55 minutes (the piece was written for the Edmonton Fringe in Canada), the production is outstanding, the story as seductive as it is diabolical.
Note: All actors and staff at OnStage Playhouse are vaxxed and masked, as audiences are required to be. Still, given the reluctance of most San Diego theater critics to return to indoor productions at this time, the company was gracious enough to provide an extra performance, just for us. I’m glad I was there.
- “The Drowning Girls” runs Sept. 3-26 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave., Chula Vista
- Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Running Time: 55 min.
- Tickets ($22-$25) are at onstageplayhouse.org, or at the door on the night of the performance
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.