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Susie Duecker, Marcee Doherty-Elst and Elyse Edelman star in "The Drowning Girls" at Renaissance. (PHOTO: Ross Zentner)

Renaissance's "The Drowning Girls" tells an impeccable tale of dangerous love

Three women, all dressed in bridal gowns, each told a tale of how that turn-of-the-century bathtub, filled with water, became a dastardly end for the brides shortly after their magical weddings.

The tales were sorrowful and magical and satisfying and dangerous. The ladies told their stories with unflinching honesty. And all three were drenched by the water of history that poured around their heads.

What's more, the story is true.

That's the charm of an impeccably directed and impeccably acted production of "The Drowning Girls" that opened at Renaissance Theaterworks Saturday night. It's an amazing experience, full of sophistication and naïveté all at the same time.

One hundred years ago, serial killer George Joseph Smith was convicted of killing his three wives, shortly after they had written their wills leaving everything to Smith. Each was discovered by Smith (who used aliases) drowned in the bathtub. After his conviction, he was executed.

Three Canadian women caught on to the story and wrote this play, allowing the three wives to all air a piece of their history that began in joyous celebration and ended in the solitude of tragedy.

Director Mallory Metoxen created an atmosphere that was as ingenious as it was emotional. Scenic director Sarah E. Ross put three old fashioned bathtubs on the stage with brass showers over them. Each bathtub was on a platform and each at different heights.

The play opens with two of the women, Elyse Edelman and Susie Duecker, on their backs in the tub and the audience seeing their legs as they do a peculiar and comedic version of synchronized swimming. They are soon joined by Marcee Doherty-Elst, and we are off and running.

The story of their courtship, marriage and death unfolds gently and with a clarity that lets the audience understand that each of the women shared so many qualities that their untimely ends seemed almost foretold. They were each lonely and inexperienced in the ways of love. Each was swept off their feet by this con man with the smooth line of patter that played to the dreams and hopes of his ladies.

In and out of the tubs throughout the production, the three women move gracefully through a bevy of characters who played roles in their lives. Relatives, friends, servants, physicians, lawyers and judges all get their moment in the stories as each of these actors show a depth of variety that is rarely seen.

Edelman, who plays Bessie, is the bride pulled from loneliness by Smith. Edelman has an expressive face that cleaves emotional emptiness one moment and lustful and joyous certainty the next.

Doherty-Elst's Margaret is a big woman and the oldest at 38. Time is running out for her, and when Smith comes knocking, she jumps with both feet. Her marriage lasted one day before she was found dead in the bathtub. Doherty-Elst combines her imposing figure with a fragile ego that is waiting and begging for almost anything.

Duecker's Alice is the youngest and most naive of the group, content in her cuteness and surprised to find herself in love. Playing a character totally without experience in what love means, Duecker is an exciting and passionate actor who is a flash of light in this darkened panorama.

This production marks the debut at Renaissance for all three actors, and they flourish under the direction from Metoxen, who continues her rise as one of the most interesting and exciting young directors in this city. She is obviously smart beyond her years and has the kind of courage that sets a high bar for each member of her team.

There is a moment in this play, as Edelman sits on Doherty-Elst's tub, preparing to act out her murder. It as filled with tension and drama as any scene I've seen this season. Renaissance is a theater committed to telling tales of women by women and with women. And they have been very successful in creating opportunities for women. But this play climbs well beyond any gender specific celebration. This one is about a universal humanity and about the adage of being careful of what you wish for.

What I wish for here is that everybody who loves interesting and challenging theater see this play.

"The Drowning Girls" runs through Nov. 13 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

Production Credits: Director, Mallory Metoxen; Stage Manager, Amy Witherby; Scenic Design, Sarah E. Ross; Props Design, Madelyn Yee; Lighting Design, Alan Piotrowicz; Sound Design, Megan Henninger; Costume Design, Kristina Sneshkoff; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons.


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