Director Morgan Duncan’s production of Patricia Milton’s “The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective” at the Washington Stage Guild is a spirited and impeccably performed show that rises above the sometimes uneven script.
Milton has a clever idea here. She takes the framework of period pieces and stage mysteries and gives it a feminist twist, empowering three, late 19th-century women who have each been held back and pushed aside by patriarchal society in different ways. She gets the show rolling quickly, with aspiring detective Loveday Fortescue (Jen Furlong) speculating about a Jack the Ripper-esque slayer who has been terrorizing her London neighborhood.
…a spirited and impeccably performed show that rises above the sometimes uneven script.
Loveday is countered by her sister Valeria Hunter (Laura Giannarelli), a boarding house owner with socialist sympathies but a decidedly capitalistic perspective on her own financial affairs. Valeria is initially reluctant to join her sister in the hunt for the “Battersea Butcher,” knowing she would have to foot the bill for the investigation and fearing Loveday’s tendency to go to extremes. As the show proceeds, we learn that Valeria has other reasons for caution—and for wanting to see justice done.
The energetic Furlong succeeds in finding the careful balance between Loveday’s sheer pleasure in her investigation and her sensitivity to the victims. (Any fan of the modern true-crime genre can understand this ambivalence.) Indeed, when the sisters are joined by a third would-be detective—boarder and possible Butcher target, Katherine Smalls (Debora Crabbe)—Loveday is taken to task for finding glee in the gore.
Giannarelli brings nuance to Valeria, whose character deepens throughout the show, and Crabbe excels in portraying Katherine as a woman who refuses to bow down to fear. Steven Carpenter plays all three of the men who cross the women’s paths, offering both comedy and malevolence.
Duncan’s production is crisp, the actors are great, and the costumes and set (by Stephanie Parks and Megan Holden, respectively) are lush and gorgeous. It is only Milton’s script that is a bit of a letdown.
It’s a funny script, and the action moves swiftly. Milton has succeeded in creating compelling characters. But there is a reason why most stage mysteries are set at the scene of the crime. It is very hard to portray a murder investigation on stage if the characters can never be shown outside a single room. The three detectives spend most of the runtime dissecting tidbits from media reports, tossing around theories that are meant to seem sound but which are often flimsy, and waiting for the three suspects to eventually wander into the boardinghouse.
After the first hour had elapsed, I found myself wondering when the real investigating would begin, since not much had been achieved. It’s hopefully no spoiler to say that an audience member hoping to crack the case from their seat would be disappointed. The “mystery” cannot be solved by what’s shown on stage, and the ending is rushed, arbitrary, and implausible.
“The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective” is one to see for the performers, the design, and the wit. It’s not one to see if you are hoping to play detective yourself.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
“The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective” has been EXTENDED through March 3, 2024, at Washington Stage Guild, performing at the Undercroft Theatre, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20001. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.