The Drowning Girls a thriller soaked in betrayal

Vertigo ends its season with a ghostly tale of deception and murder staged in simple yet memorable way.

First presented to Calgary audiences back in 2008, the highly acclaimed The Drowning Girls returns, this time to the Vertigo Theatre stage. Based on actual events that occurred in 1915, the story revolves around three women, Bessie, Alice and Margaret, all having been married to the same man, and all drowned by him in their bathtubs. The story is told through these women’s perspectives, piecing together the events that led up to each of their murders.

Bringing this thriller to life are actors Donna Soares, Jamie Tognazzini and Jamie Konchak, who are excited to be part of it.

“It’s such a gift as an actor,” says Tognazzini, who plays Alice. “(The role is) such a unique opportunity — so much fun and so artistic with such a great creative team.”

The creative team is headed up by One Yellow Rabbit’s Blake Brooker and Denise Clarke, who are known for tackling more complicated and thought-provoking scripts.

“What’s interesting about this script is it’s so … spare, so that the creative team really does get to put their mark on it,” says Konchak (Bessie). “You know that this is a great script for (Brooker and Clarke) to work on because it’s not just kitchen sink drama, it’s more about ‘How does it move, how is the story told?’ And then working with the water is wild …”

Oh, yes. The actors are constantly in and out of the bathtubs that their characters were drowned in, and perform the entire play sopping wet, a detail that brings a level of intimacy to the performance, not just for the audience, but for the actors as well.

According to Konchak, “It feels really childlike … when you see someone spending so much effort to be understood, to communicate or to be heard, but doing it dripping wet in this kind of shivering, vulnerable state, there’s something so beautiful about that. I think that the creators (Beth Graham, Daniela Vlaskalic and Charlie Tomlinson) really purposely shaped something beautiful.”

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The Drowning Girls L-R: Jamie Konchak, Donna Soares, Jamie Tognazzini

The set of the play is simple, yet memorable: it’s all about the lighting, the aesthetic and the design. “The lights on that set, the sound …,” says Soares (Margaret). “I saw (the production) when it toured, and even then I remember being stunned by the set … I do remember just the look of it, the style.”

The pared-down set lends itself well to the dark tale these women tell of their own murders. The crimes perpetrated by these women’s husband, George Joseph Smith, reveal themselves through the characters’ recollections of the events that preceded their deaths. The story itself isn’t just about the murder of these women; it’s not necessarily a who-done-it.

“It’s about all the tiny little things that led to the betrayal,” says Konchak. “You trust someone enough to be in such a vulnerable state with them, and to take advantage of that in such a dark, violent way is horrifying. So as Blake (Brooker) says, it’s kind of more like a how-done-it and a why-done-it.”

Like most good thrillers, there is more to the story than simply focusing on the perpetrator of the crime.

“It’s not just exploiting the sensationalism of this multiple murder and this serial killer,” says Tognazzini, “but really exploring the identities of the victims and what their experience was. It’s very much about the women.”

“And through their lens for once,” adds Konchak. “We’re often seeing these kinds of stories through a male lens, but this is told through a female lens, we see him through their eyes.”

The play gives a voice to these women who, back in 1915, by mere circumstance of being women, had few options or say in so may aspects of their lives. Telling the story from the victims’ perspectives also brings more humanity to the characters, personalizing it, according to Soares.

“They’re not just naive women, it could have happened to anyone,” she says.

The narrative itself, to the cast, seems like a collaboration.

“It’s like shared storytelling, it’s almost like part choral work, part shared monologue,” says Konchak.

Tognazzini agrees. “The thing that connects us is that our characters were all sort of part of the same narrative in the grand scheme of it,” she says, adding, “You really feel the sense of sisterhood between (the women) and that’s something that Denise and Blake have really tried to foster as well, is that we want to you to see these kindred entities … the connection between us is really lovely.”

The Drowning Girls runs at Vertigo Theatre until June 11. Tickets available on their website,

Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through her website, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at