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Liza Balkan, Carly Street, Taylor Trowbridge. Photos: Kaufmann photography
Liza Balkan, Carly Street, Taylor Trowbridge. Photos: Kaufmann photography

Theatre Review: "The Drowning Girls" in the Firehall at the 1000 Islands Playhouse.

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The Drowning Girls is running in the Firehall at the 1000 Islands Playhouse through July 30. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has our review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

Director Kathryn MacKay has created true theatre magic with her production of THE DROWNING GIRLS. Written by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic, it’s based on a real case in the early 20th century known as the “Brides in the Bath Murders.” George Joseph Smith, Edwardian con man, serial bigamist and murderer, was hanged in 1915 for the murder of Bessie Mundy. It was strongly suspected that out of his seven wives he’d also drowned two others, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty. In this mesmerizing retelling, Margaret, Bessie and Alice emerge from their bath tubs to tell their stories.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of water on the stage and on the actresses. As a matter of fact, water IS the stage. The action even has hints of water ballet, what with all the dolphin-like sliding and plunging into and out of three claw-footed tubs.

Steve Lucas has designed a starkly simple and evocative set. The irregularly shaped playing space has six inch sides and contains 3 or 4 inches of water as well as the tubs that also contain water. Three wedding dresses and veils are suspended over the tubs, as well as flat silver shower heads. Mr. Lucas’s lighting adds to the symbolist feel.

Sandy Thorburn has done a fine job with the atmospheric sound and wonderfully strange opening music. He’s also done a lovely trio arrangement of “Nearer My God to Thee.”

Jayne Christopher’s period undergarments for the ladies look good even soaked through and the wedding dresses differ just enough to suit the different characters. I’m amazed at how well the hair and make-up hold up with all the sloshing.

The cast is uniformly strong. Liza Balkan is a sympathetic Margaret, who thought Smith would be her last chance to escape spinsterhood. Carly Street is a naïve Bessie, who thought there’d be nothing more wonderful than marriage. Taylor Trowbridge makes a spunky Alice, longing to rebel against her family. All three are terrific not only as the brides, but as the various other characters who influenced their lives and stories.

The guiding hand behind THE DROWNING GIRLS is Director Kathryn MacKay. Her staging is clever and intriguing. She and her strong cast make the plot twists and character changes perfectly clear and believable, and I even liked the small moments of choral speaking. Her use of the water, tubs and showers is spot on and her depiction of Mr. Smith very effective.

The case was a milestone for the British legal system, as it was the first time forensic evidence and a reenactment of the crime were used to gain a conviction. In the play the courtroom demonstration using a professional lady swimmer is hilarious, but it’s immediately followed by a frighteningly real demonstration. Miss MacKay has woven all the elements of the production together to make a powerful and fascinating whole.

On a scale of one to five the 1000 Islands Playhouse production in the Firehall of THE DROWNING GIRLS gets five dalmations barking enthusiastically. For North Country Public Radio I’m Connie Meng.

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