An uneasy feeling washed over Studio 60 as audience members entered the space where two girls lay motionless in a bathtub, a veil draped over their bodies. Once the audience was fully seated, silence hung in the air until Bessie, portrayed by Alexis Wentworth, gasped to life.
“The grave is very silent and they’re coming out of the bathtub symbolizing that grave in the beginning,” explained director Anna Stevens. “It had to be a brutal awakening, and the most effective way for me to do that as a director was for them to start out in the bathtub.”
“The Drowning Girls” is a play inspired by the real 1915 case of George Joseph Smith, a bigamist who murdered three of his six wives by drowning them. This production was part of the Samford Underground Theatre, a student run organization which provides opportunities for students to act, direct, write, and further their artistic education without the help of faculty.
Throughout the play, water is a major element. Alice, played by Lana Stringer, is the first character to have water dumped on her early in the play.
“Water acts as a fourth character in the play, and it symbolizes our life forces draining out throughout the play,” Stringer said.
Though the cast and crew felt that the water was fun to work with, it also presented a major challenge. Throughout the show, the water is stored in four buckets, which Stevens purchased from a farmer supply store.
“The buckets were definitely the most frustrating part,” Stevens said.
Olivia Sundberg, a first-time stage manager, tried various techniques once she discovered the buckets leaked.
“We had to try to put tape in them. Didn’t work. We tried to put Flex Seal on them. Didn’t work. Finally, our lighting board op told us if we put caulk in it then that would work, and it did,” Sundberg said.
In one of the most climactic scenes in the play, Margaret, played by Zoe Clark, is drowned on stage. To ensure the actress’s safety, the scene was highly choreographed and there was a safeword for rehearsals.
“We were constantly concerned about safety,” Sundberg said, “We wanted to make sure that Zoe was in control the whole time.”
Though it appears that Margaret is forced under the water by her legs being pulled out of the tub, Clark was actually the one shifting her own body to create that illusion.
“We make eye contact, then I breathe in, and I push back and push my body out while she lifts my legs up,” Clark explained.
Though the show focuses on dark themes, there are moments of humor throughout the play, even ending with a joke as the women laugh at their killer after he is convicted.
“The whole point of the show is that these women died a terrible death at the hands of a terrible man, but this show demonstrates that that’s not all they were good for and that’s not all they had to be known for,” Stringer said.
A talkback was held immediately following the performance so audience members could ask questions of the cast and crew.
“I wanted to raise awareness for domestic abuse in relationships, but also I wanted people to know the stories of these women and not judge them,” Stevens said.
As the first show of the Underground’s 2021-2022 season, “The Drowning Girls” offered a hopeful perspective to a serial murder case in which the victims find justice.