Over 100 years ago, Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Loftly were killed by the same man.
He’s been written about in popular media, inspired fiction writers and the case has been given a nickname — the brides in the bath murders.
Much less is known about his victims.
A Canadian-written play, The Drowning Girls, set to open on the E.A. Rawlinson Stage Thursday seeks to change that.
The story gives voice to those three women — Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Loftly — and none to him.
“The importance of this show to me is that the women tell their own stories,” said Roxanne Dicke, who directed the show.
“They’re positioned as victims in history. You really have to dig deep to find out information about the women themselves. But there is lots about the man who killed them. To allow them to restore their own story, to narrate their own story and to take all the characters on, all of those things are exceptionally important to recovering their own voice.”
Adreanna Boucher plays Alice Burnham.
She’s played real people before, but said that Alice felt more important to her.
“I wanted to tell her story truthfully,” Boucher said.
“I tried to capture who she was, which is hard, because there isn’t a lot of information on any of these women, except for the fact that they’re victims of George Joseph Smith. I like that in this play, you never see him. Ever. You just see these women. They finally get to tell their story about what happens to them.”
Boucher said the story goes into those questions people have, those misconceptions or judgements about victims of domestic violence.
“Something people don’t understand is how a woman finds herself in that position? How could they not know? And these women say that,” Boucher said.
“‘How could I not have known ‘ — they say it over and over again. ‘ If only, if only’ and they show how it can happen.”
Boucher dug deep to understand Alice. She did her research. As an actress, she dyed her hair, something she’s never had to do before, and committed to a role that sees her perform in an actual bathtub with actual water.
That scene was important to the show, Dicke said, though it adds its own challenges, as you have to actually plumb the stage.
“What amazes me is the team that makes that makes the magic happen on stage and makes it look easy.”
Like the water itself, Dicke said, throughout the show, the actors flow in and out of different timelines and different characters.
“It’s very fluid. It goes back and forth,” Dicke said. “It uses a lot of different theatre conventions.”
Working with water on stage wasn’t the only challenge. Like anything in 2021, the show is being put on in a way that’s COVID-safe. The performers will be wearing masks and only 30 people are allowed inside the auditorium. That’s just five per cent of the centre’s capacity. The show is also being presented as a livestream for anyone without in-person tickets or who doesn’t feel comfortable attending the show.
It’s the first piece of live, rehearsed theatre presented since the pandemic hit last year. Both Dicke and Boucher are grateful for the opportunity.
“It’s thrilling, but it’s also a deep sense of gratitude to be able to work with artists again,” Dicke said.
“To have this incredible opportunity at this time in our world’s history, to be with artists and to build something and to create a world for people to enjoy is an honour. I can’t say enough how much that means to me.”
Boucher, who also owns and runs Jam Street Shared Art Space and Off the Cuff Improv, said the arts industry has been among those hit the hardest.
“It’s been really great to take part in the show building process with these wonderful people,” Boucher said. “You should always come to see live theatre. The pandemic has every industry struggling but particularly the arts. We’re so grateful … to all of our sponsors, because without them we wouldn’t be able to be here with such a small audience. We just want people to come out and take in a really great show and show their support and love for the arts.”
Even if live theatre is shut down tomorrow, Dicke said the show would still go forward as a livestream.
“The investment is there. We’ve done all the work. We’re ready for an audience. We would hope that people would support it and continue to support it. The entertainment industry, the live theatre industry is in a very difficult position right now. We were the first to close and will be the last to really, truly come back.”
While the pandemic’s impact on live theatre is on the performers’ and director’s minds, so is its impact on people living with abusers like George Joseph Smith.
The story is set between 1912 and 1914, but its tale of a bigamous abuser who escalates into murder is still relevant today.
“It’s an incredible show. It’s certainly relevant,” Dicke said. “At the end of the day, I think it’s a very empowering piece.”
Stay-at-home orders have trapped victims with their abusers. Multiple studies and reports say this has led to an increase in the number of domestic violence calls.
“The number of women who have suffered at the hands of domestic violence or have been killed … has been on the rise,” Boucher said.
“This show is timely, because it speaks to that. These are three women who are all married to the same man, who had their lives taken away. He gaslit them and treated them horribly, and in the end, killed them. There’s a lot of levity and comedy in the way they tell the story without taking away from how sickening the problem of domestic violence really is.
“This gives them their voice back to let people know who they were.”
The Drowning Girls, by Daniela Vlaskalic, Charlie Tomlinson and Beth Graham will be performed Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with an additional matinee show on Saturday at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the E.A. Rawlinson Box office or online, and can be purchased for the Saturday matinee in-person performance or for any of the livestreams. For more information, call 306-765-1270, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit earc.ca.