‘Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective’ gets clued in at Washington Stage Guild

Three intrepid women find their power as they band together to catch and dispatch a terrifying serial killer.

For those who like their mystery with a feminist touch, The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective at the Washington Stage Guild will be the perfect entertainment. It is London, the Hunter Lodging House, in the fall of 1893. Images of Sherlock Holmes, the gaslit, mysterious city, and the ever-present threat of violence come to mind.

A serial killer is haunting the area, and his victims are actresses. Four are already dead, and one is seriously injured. But help is on the way: three intrepid women — Loveday Fortescue (Jen Furlong), her sister Valeria Hunter (Laura Giannarelli), and American actress Katherine “Katie” Smalls (Debora Crabbe) — will band together to catch and dispatch the terrifying “Battersea Butcher.”

Jen Furlong as Loveday Fortescue, Debora Crabbe as Katie Smalls, and Laura Giannarelli as Valeria Hunter in ‘The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Loveday, a former actress herself, is determined to apprehend the culprit. She is hindered in her efforts by a condescending chauvinist from the Metropolitan Police, Constable Henry Crane (Steven Carpenter). He believes that “ladies are entirely unsuitable to detective work.” She has even less flattering words for him: “I marvel at your cockiness: that it blossoms, somehow, in the rocky soil of your ineptitude.” Furlong’s portrait of the strongminded and witty Loveday is the centerpiece of the play.

Laura Giannarelli’s Valeria, who owns the house, is clever, outspoken, and struggling to overcome a trauma of her own. The charismatic American actress, Katie Smalls (Debora Crabbe) has astonishing self-defense capabilities, and her own stories to tell about the vicissitudes of men. Furlong, Giannarelli, and Crabbe bring spirit and style to their performances as these three courageous women.

Steven Carpenter excels as the three male characters: Constable Crane, theatrical poseur Jasbry Warham-Wynn, and Toddy the Cat’s Meat Man, whose views on women are best described as antediluvian.

The clues are wide-ranging, from Krafft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) to the vocabulary of the local ornithological society. The women fear death, assault, deception, and the sobering realization that whatever happens to them, they will not be believed.

TOP: Steven Carpenter as Jasby, Debora Crabbe as Katie, Jen Furlong as Loveday, and Laura Giannarelli as Valeria; ABOVE: Debora Crabbe as Katie Smalls and Jen Furlong as Loveday Fortescue in ‘The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective.’ Photos by DJ Corey Photography.

It is worth noting that in Victorian England, life was full of contradictions. Although there was an active suffrage movement, women did not have the right to vote. They were largely confined to the domestic sphere. Family life was idealized, and sexuality, while abundant, was often kept underground. Books such as the contemporary diary My Secret Life (1888) by “Walter” (frequently banned for obscenity) or Steven Marcus’ The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Victorian England (1966) attest to the variety and intensity of this subversive world.

Social inequality, theft, and prostitution were commonplace. Anyone who has even cursorily streamed one of the BBC’s detective series such as Ripper Street (2012), with Succession’s Matthew Mcfayden, is well aware of these realities.

Still, when author Patricia Milton touches on these topics, she adds depth and perspective to her story. Director Morgan Duncan, who has obtained fine performances from his actors, is careful to keep the tone consistent throughout. Because the cast is small, complex plotting is kept to a minimum and the focus is on character rather than elaborate reversals and surprises.

The set, by Scenic Designer Megan Holden, is exceptionally attractive and detailed. Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows enhances the actresses’ key monologues by spotlighting them. Stephanie Parks’ costumes are perfectly suited to time, place, and character.

At a time when women’s suffrage was decades away, Milton reminds us that women could still exercise their power.

Running Time: Approximately two hours with one intermission.

EXTENDED: The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective plays through March 3, 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 – Stage Manager

Actor Jen Furlong on the funny feminist spoof coming to Washington Stage Guild (interview by Ravelle Brickman, January 31, 2024)

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She has an extensive background in theater. Her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied Classics and English at Barnard and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe.


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