It's an Esther Williams dream-turned-nightmare: Be totally drenched, plunged into pools of water, emerge time and again until you end up dead.
Although the three waterlogged actors in The Drowning Girls often seem to revel in the H2O all around them, this is no "aqua musical" of the kind the Hollywood mermaid Ms. Williams made famous in the 1950s. No, this regional premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre is, instead, a thoroughly compelling dramatization of a scandalous serial-murder spree that took place in England's bathtubs a century ago.
Thanks to a vital and energizing script, and superbly imaginative direction by Melissa Therese Crum, this production will take your breath away figuratively and, at a couple points, almost literally.
It is written by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic. Their words are artfully arranged even though the three women victims—Alice, Bessie and Margaret—are only portrayed as thoroughly soaked cardboard cutouts. By denying these women a deeper individuality, the playwrights neatly encapsulate the state of women's status at that time. To wit, if you were not married to a man with some social substance, you were a nonentity.
That explains why these ladies, who come from well-to-do families, are swept off their feet by a charming "man of independent means." In truth, he is actually con man, bigamist and budding serial killer George Joseph Smith. We learn about him, and each of the romances that lead to murder, through a vaguely linear progression of overlapping scenes and a variety of water torrents, splashes and sprays.
Meeting the women seemingly by accident in a park or at church, Smith stalks his prey and then ensnares each in marriage after first signing them up for insurance policies. Then, he establishes a reason for their soon-to-occur accidental drowning in a bathtub by taking his wives to doctors to be treated for nonexistent illnesses (epilepsy? fainting spells?). The women themselves, who claim they feel fine, are considered emotionally unfit to be consulted on such an important issue as their own health.
The three victims, the homicidal hubby, and all other characters are played by a trio of actors who slosh their way to an undeniable, wrinkled-fingertip triumph. Dynamic Natalie Green is feisty Alice, who sticks it to her over-protective parents by marrying Smith. And helpfully, Green is actually small enough to sort of dive into the three claw-foot tubs on Val Kozlenko's tidy stage set — lighted evocatively by Ben Gantose.
Sarah Kunchik captures the innocence of Bessie, a young woman primed by society for the eternal happiness of marriage, only to discover her own eternity a lot sooner than she expects. And Jamie Bouvier lends some gravity as the older Margaret, who is a bit less star struck and who is dispatched by Smith only a day after their wedding.
These slayings, which were dubbed the "Brides in the Bath Murders," actually made legal history. After a couple of the victims' fathers note the similarity in modus operandi by reading newspapers, Smith is put on trial. And the lawyers, for the first time ever, use a courtroom demonstration to show how the women could have been drowned in a tub without leaving any signs of violence or struggle.
To do this, the prosecution brings in a professional swimmer (Bouvier) to play the role of a victim. And this thrashing, stupefying sequence is the most riveting moment in the play. It culminates with a ghastly technique (a version of which is now known as waterboarding), that leads to a quick silence and, if the perpetrator wishes, efficient death.
This stunning, tightly-compressed 60-minute play symbolizes the tragic silence and death of every woman's individuality and autonomy, as imposed by society many years ago. And for those who see ominous contemporary parallels in current Congressional legislation attempting to deny women the health care they want and need, it's enough to make you gasp for air.
The Drowning Girls Through May 3 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727,