Bath time gone wrong

by Lenise Willis

A relaxing bubble bath can calm the nerves and warm the spirit, but you just might think twice before soaking after seeing Spirit Gum Theatre Company’s spooky production of The Drowning Girls by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic.

The production is based on the real murders committed by George Joseph Smith in the early 1900s. Smith was eventually convicted and hung for killing his three wives, who were each found drowned in a bathtub. At first, there was no suspicion until a relative of one of the deceased noticed and reported the similarities in deaths to the police.

“I think it is a good fit for Halloween because the subject matter is chilling,” said Caitlin Stafford, stage manager and one of the company’s founders. “It’s definitely not in the horror genre, and though it discusses murder, the deaths aren’t bloody or gruesome. But there are some very creepy moments and may leave the audience with a tingle in their spine.”

“I feel as though the playwrights used it as a chance to give these women a voice, a means to defend themselves, as at the time of their deaths they were all looked down on as being stupid for having fallen for this swindler,” Stafford added.

Smith was a serial bigamist, having had multiple marriages previous to the first wife he killed, Bessie Mundy. He then married and killed Alice Burnham, and finally Margaret Lofty. For a few years the murders went unnoticed, assumed to be accidental since there were no signs of a struggle, nobody heard any noise to suggest anything sinister, and Smith had an alibi in every instance.

So why did the playwrights choose “the brides in the bath murders” for the subject of a play? Stafford notes that not only is the story intriguing, but the case also has historical and scientific significance, as it was one of the first to incorporate forensic science to convict the murderer.

“Drowning Girls’ not only tells the story of the murders, but gives some background on Smith and all three women, but in a modern style,” Stafford added. “The script is very fast paced and non linear.”

To set the scene, Stafford said they didn’t need much, just three tubs with water. The water is an important touch as it adds to the efficacy of the dialogue. “The actors will be dripping wet all around the set for the entire show,” Stafford said.

Of course, the need for water added to the challenges of the show, creating a safety concern for the actors, and calling for a creative set design.

“The script also calls for shower heads to rain down from above the tubs at strategic moments, but that was just a bit too much for us to manage in the space that we are performing in,” Stafford said. “We decided to use lighting in an effective manner that would give a similar effect.

Perhaps for an anniversary production, when we are more financially robust, we’ll be able to put more into that part of the set.”

In addition to performing while soaking wet, the actors each play as many as ten different characters and must change dialects at the drop of a hat.

As for the costume design, each of the women is dressed in clothing appropriate to the early 1900s. They all don wedding dresses early in the show, over top of corsets and other period undergarments.

“I just wanted to be as period-accurate with dresses and underclothes as possible,” said Sarah Jenkins, costumer. “They are beautiful and restrictive.”

Stafford said the young company is excited to produce the show, and give their audience something they might not have heard of or seen before.

“We’re proud to be able to produce theatre that wouldn’t otherwise get a chance in this town,” Stafford said, “both because we have a much smaller house to fill and because from the beginning audiences knew to expect something more raw from us. We push boundaries; we discuss topics that may be seen as controversial on a larger stage.” !


The Drowning Girls runs Oct. 9-11 and Oct. 16-18 at Actor’s Group, 843 Reynolda Road, Winston- Salem. Tickets are $10 and must be purchased with cash at the door or reserved by emailing (and paid at the door).

For more information visit Play is suggested for ages 12 and older.