“Fizzy, funny, feminist, and smart.”
Those are some of the words used by Jen Furlong — a frothy fixture of the DC stage — to describe The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective, opening this week at Washington Stage Guild.
She sums up the play as “a feminist spoof of a classic 19th-century murder mystery — one in which three Victorian ladies adopt the mores of the #MeToo movement in order to solve the crimes of the ‘Battersea Butcher,’ a notorious killer whose murderous mania has defeated the stalwarts of Scotland Yard.”
Furlong plays an over-the-top retired actress named Loveday Fortescue, who is reduced to working as a governess and living with her sister, Mrs. Hunter, at the sister’s Lodging House for Ladies.
Laura Giannarelli — one of the founders of the Guild as well as a costar of Furlong’s when Jen was just 11 years old — plays Mrs. Hunter; Debora Crabb is Katie Smalls, a fellow lodger; and Steve Carpenter, the Guild’s man-of-all-talents, plays all the male roles.
I caught up with Furlong the other day on Zoom. She spoke from the library of the 1890s farmhouse in Stafford, Virginia, where she lives with her husband, four children, and seven goats.
“My character,” she explained, smiling broadly onscreen, “is a proto-feminist determined to find the killer. She enlists one of the boarders to help solve the case, and together they draw in the reluctant proprietor, Mrs. Hunter herself, to solve the crime.”
Even though it’s Victorian on the surface, the play is thoroughly contemporary. “It’s pro-woman, pro-action, and pro-intelligence,” Furlong said, adding that it’s “a smart play for a smart town.”
The playwright, Patricia Milton, says the play is a clear response to the #MeToo movement.
“In fact,” Furlong pointed out to me, “each of the women in the play has had a ‘nasty experience’ — one in which she was humiliated or abused. Each of them can say, ‘Yes, me too.’ These experiences serve to connect them.
“The play sets out to empower the female audience while simultaneously entertaining it,” she said, pointing out that this is not typical in “real” Victorian plays, except, perhaps, for Shaw.
“Everyone who feels the phrase ‘Me too’ in her bones should feel vindicated. These three women really see each other. They see each other’s strengths. They stick together.”
Carpenter is the associate artistic director of the Guild and a frequent Helen Hayes Award nominee. Casting him in all the male roles is a clever way of saying that, to these Victorian ladies, all men are the same. There are, in fact, no sympathetic men in this play.
“The play is funny and fun, yet it addresses some serious issues,” Furlong continued. “These women are smart. They have a clear understanding of their situation. They use their intuition to reach conclusions. And they do it by pursuing the obvious and the not-so-obvious clues.”
A lot of the humor comes from the similarity between Victorian ideals and those of today.
“Many people still believe that a woman’s place is in the house,” Furlong said. “There is an element of melodrama in the play because the men are so one-dimensional. But unlike melodrama, the women are fully fleshed out and have agency. The play is very easy to relate to, in that the situation is comparable to our own personal experiences.”
Looking back at her 40-year-long career on the DC stage, Furlong can list dozens of productions — beginning with her debut, playing opposite Giannarelli, in A Cry of Players, and subsequent performances at Round House, Studio, Woolly Mammoth, Arena, the Kennedy Center, Ford’s and many others — all before she was 18.
A born-and-bred product of the local theater scene, she is proud to be a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where she was class valedictorian.
Surprisingly, this is her first show at Washington Stage Guild. “Back in the day,” she said, “I performed at every theater in Washington except for the Guild, Theater J, and GALA.”
There was a hiatus for a while, when she took a 16–year maternity leave in 2002, producing four children in eight years. (“It’s very difficult to perform when you’re nursing, and then raising, four kids.”) She returned in 2018 for the role of Mrs. Stockman in An Enemy of the People and has been back on the boards ever since.
As a result of that hiatus, she reflected, the role of Loveday Fortescue — a retired actor — is a perfect fit since it is very much in line with her own experience.
“Although Loveday has worked as a governess for at least 20 years, she’s always been an actor. She leaves the stage as an ingenue, but then returns, as a ‘seasoned lady,’ channeling her instincts and acting skills into being a successful detective.”
Furling spent her own years offstage writing novels for young adults. Writing and acting, she found, were very similar.
“A storyteller is a storyteller,” she laughed. “The transition from acting to writing was very natural. Both skills demand being absorbed in the character and thinking in terms of dialogue.”
So far, as J.S. Furlong, she has published four books. Her first novel, Hidden City, has been a Barnes & Noble in-store bestseller seven times. Her second, Tattooed Angel, was recently nominated for a Young Adult Award by the Richmond Public Library. Her newest, Meredith at the Met, will come out next week, just a few days after the opening of the play.
Now that she is back on stage, dividing her time between acting and writing, she finds that having a supportive family makes all the difference.
“My husband holds down the fort, and everyone makes dinner once a week. Since there are six of us, that works out perfectly, since on the seventh day we rest — and eat leftovers.”
As for the farm, she makes milk and cheese from the goats but doesn’t sell them.
One last word on the play: “Bring your daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends — and the men in your life as well — and be prepared to shout, ‘Me too!’”
Running Time: Approximately two hours with one intermission.
The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective plays February 11 through 25, 2024, presented by Washington Stage Guild performing at The Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Prices are $50 for Thursday evening performances and Saturday and Sunday matinees, and $60 for Saturday and Sunday evenings. Students are half-price, and seniors over 65 get a $10 discount. Tickets can be purchased online.
COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended (not required). Washington Stage Guild’s complete Health and Safety Policy is here.
The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective
By Patricia Milton
Directed by Morgan Duncan
Jen Furlong – Loveday Fortescue
Laura Giannarelli – Valeria Hunter
Steven Carpenter – Crane/Jasbry/Toddy
Debora Crabbe – Katherine (Katie) Smalls
Megan Holden – Scenic Design
Marianne Meadows – Lighting Design
Stephanie Parks – Costume Design
Alli Pearson – Sound Design
Bess Kaye – Fight Choreographer
Arthur Nordlie – Production Stage Manager