Escape from the Asylum
When in June 2019 I reviewed Central Works’ world premiere of Patricia Milton’s The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective, I ended my glowing review of the gripping, yet humorous murder mystery with a hope “the playwright decides that – just like Holmes and Watson – Fortescue, Hunter, and Smalls might deserve more mysteries to solve in a sequel.” To my personal delight, Central Works emerges from a two-year, COVID-forced hiatus with yet another Patricia Milton world premiere (the company’s 67th) featuring the same three female sleuths: Escape from the Asylum. Her first play underscored men’s Victorian attitudes of women as being too outspoken, too independent, and thus second-class – attitudes often similar to what is still heard today from many, ultra-conservative corners. Likewise, Patricia Milton’s Escape from the Asylum tackles yesteryear’s – and by an easy leap, today’s – widespread beliefs that women are often too emotional to be trusted for decision-making and are thus prone to be unstable mentally.
Following their first outing as successful detectives, sisters Valeria Hunter and Loveday Fortescue and their friend and boarder Katherine (Katie) Small have unfortunately not had a flood of follow-up clients in the waning years of 19th-century London. In fact, the American Katie remarks that they are so desperate for money that “we’re as stale as last week’s crumpets.” They are thus quite excited when at the door of Valeria’s boarding house for young actresses there appears a potential client – a slightly bent-at-the-shoulders man with handlebar mustache, cane, and a superior-than-thou attitude. He’s a little taken aback that Mrs. Hunter’s absent husband allows her unescorted in her parlor to meet another gentleman – not realizing that poor Nigel had an unfortunate boat accident several years prior that his wife orchestrated after he tried to have her committed. Nevertheless, Mr. Clutterbug seeks help to gain proof that his wife’s “shy, retiring, and quite stupid” maid, Miss Rosalind Smith, has stolen seven items of considerable value from his wife. He is sure it is the maid and not an outsider because of a modern, electrical device he has recently installed to alarm if a burglar enters the house. He is adamant that “I want this person caught and imprisoned.”
As the still-novice-yet-clever detectives do what detectives should do and ask more questions (something the obviously chauvinistic Clutterbug does not enjoy from the pushy females), they of course want to know more about who his wife thinks that it is who is pilfering things under her nose. It is then they discover that Clutterbug has – as the English law clearly allows –had his wife committed to the Belfry Institute for Nervous Diseases. Peppered by increasingly exacting questions from the clearly appalled women, Clutterbug with much justified indignation declares his reason for the commitment: “I will not endure a furious uterus.” After all, his wife was taking grievous risks traveling to foreign lands, was too outspoken with her opinions, and even “refused to take my last name.” In Victorian England (and even in turn-of-the-century U.S.), those were grounds enough for a husband to have the wife he no longer wanted out of his sight forever.
But the collective three’s greater horror is when they find out the wife who would not change her name is none other than Mehetabelle Fernsby, the well-known and respected leader of the Needlework Society of which Valeria is an active member. As they quickly send Clutterbug on his way, the three decide they now have two cases to undertake: Determining the maid’s guilt/innocence and an investigation into the Belfry Asylum in order hopefully to free Mehetabelle (whose Biblical name means ‘has done good for us’ – a clever, hidden clue by the playwright of whose side she is on).
Other than Loveday, all characters are played by the same actors as in Central Works’ original Ladies’ Collective who-done-it by Patricia Milton; and their role reprisals are certainly a major win for this second installment of the detective trio’s adventures. Fortunately, Director Gary Graves and his team have also returned to create a well-paced, authentically looking, and appropriately mysterious two hours through many wonderfully brilliant choices of lighting (Gary Graves), sound (Gregory Scharpen), costume (Tammy Berlin), and properties (Debbie Shelley).
Jan Zvaifler is once again the elder sister and rather prim-and-proper proprietor of the boarding house, Valeria Hunter, a woman who continues to have no patience for fools and who is still initially skeptical and cautious to suggested plans of action. In fact, her first dismissive reaction of the latest idea of others is likely to be “too dangerous and thus too foolish,” and her response to a solicitation of her aid tends in the direction of “I am not a competent person.” But as her sister flatly reminds her, “Valeria, you have killed two men” (i.e., her despicable husband and an equally detestable, corrupt constable). When Valeria is at one point persuaded to be Madame Valeria and lead a séance to squeeze the truth out of a sleezy asylum director, Jan Zvaifler is wonderful as her Valeria goes from an initial awkward waving of arms to an entranced Madame who wide-eyed becomes the haunting voices of those from the great beyond.
Chelsea Bearce is once again the Creole immigrant from New Orleans, Katherine Smalls, who is a struggling actress sporting a southern drawl in the land of the Queen’s English. She does have a way with words (“slower than a turtle stuck in mud”) and reacts to all the talk of women being insane with a smirky humph, “The way we wear a corset, it’s no small matter more of us are not mad.” Katie is in many ways fearless and always eager to take on the next investigative task; but there are limits. At one point when it is suggested she take on the role of a supposed mad woman to be diagnosed by the asylum’s doctor, Katie outright refuses. “Women who look like me” (i.e., an immigrant of mixed race), “they lock up people like me … I might soon be missing an organ”. Parallels to current attitudes in the U.S. and beyond toward immigrants of darker colors could hardly be more obvious in Patricia Milton’s script of Victorian.
New in this sequel in the role of Loveday is Danielle O’Hare, an excellent addition as the sister and co-detective who likes to play boss of the other two. In her perfect scenario, “I make the plans … you execute them.” Loveday is a whirlwind of spontaneous ideas of how to proceed next in their investigations, including at one point convincing a skeptical asylum doctor that England has advanced the realm of seances to be more “sean-tific.” Without blinking an eye, she then pulls from a women’s hat box a wired cap of sorts whose magnetic powers will reportedly allow him to communicate with the dead. Danielle O’Hare’s Loveday is proudly English (“We do not panic”) and is practical why a séance is the way to get the corrupt doctor to confess hidden secrets: “The séance is one of the only settings in our society where a woman sits in power.”
Just as he did in the original play about these norm-breaking women, Alan Coyne once again with delicious, dark humor takes on the role of several thoroughly odious misogynists. He appears in Valeria’s dream as the corrupt, dead Constable who is no more due to the earlier work of the three sleuths. He snarls and snaps as Clutterbug is looking for the thieving maid and is righteously explaining his intolerance of the “furious uterus.” He is also an unscrupulous theatre manager who fires with snarly pleasure Katie from her current Shakespeare role.
But as the totally corrupt Herr Doktor Florian Von Grabstetter of the Belfry Asylum, Alan Coyne is the greasiest of them all. Von Grabstetter is the inventor of the Intrauterine Magnetic Polarity Device that he asserts quickly detects “uterus dysfunction.” He claims to diagnose “improper uterus positioning,” whereby (according to the expert doctor) the uterus travels to upper parts of the woman’s body. That leads to clear symptoms of women’s delirium like “speaking out of turn,” having “sexual fantasies,” and “rebelling against loving husbands.” To the Herr Doktor, “Obedience is the clearest sign of sanity” for a wife. To say the least, Madame Valeria and her able assistant, Loveday, have a heyday in their “sean-tific” séance making a fool out of the Doktor as they also fool him into giving them the information they need.
Alan Coyne has one more surprise role that in the end helps solve both mysteries; and in this parting appearance, he is absolutely brilliant and receives much humorous aid from Tammy Berlin’s costume and Michael Berg’s wig designs. In this final role, the playwright and he get to make a final stab at current prejudices that are running rampant among governors from some states like Florida and Texas!
Needless to say, this reviewer thoroughly enjoyed once again dropping in at the Hunter Lodging House in 1895 London to watch with glee and admiration the ingenuity and courage of three women who ignore the biases of their world in order to outsmart the men around them as they fight for the rights and lives of women. Thanks to Patricia Milton and Central Works for bringing back to the stage Valeria, Loveday, and Katie; and as I said three years ago, I can’t wait to see you three again in the future.
Rating: 5 E
Escape from the Asylum continues through April 17, 2022 at Central Works in the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available online at www.centralworks.org, by email at email@example.com, or by calling 510.558.1381.
Photos credit: Robbie Sweeney