Review: The Victorian Ladies Detective Collective

Imagine Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey—but on a stage, as a mystery. That’s how I spent my Saturday evening: basking in the fruits of “The Victorian Ladies Detective Collective,” the latest play directed by Christopher Schario at the Public Theatre in downtown Lewiston.

Written by Patricia Milton, the play centers around the hilarious charm of three women at a Victorian-era Lodging House for Ladies: two British sisters, Loveday Fortescue (Robyne Parrish) and Valeria Hunter (Joyce Cohen), and one American actress, Katherine Smalls (Courtney Thomas). The play begins on a Tuesday night in London, 1893. Following several mysterious and underinvestigated murders of women in their neighborhood, the trio decides to take matters into their own hands.

It’s no surprise that, given its name and storyline, the play dabbles in proto-feminist and feminist questions of then and now: what to do when equality is announced but not experienced? How to navigate oppression when it is dismissed as insanity? 

“The Victorian Ladies Detective Collective” is a play about action over speech. Yes, the women are quick to dismiss the sly, relentless advances of their male counterparts. At one point, Loveday snaps: “I have heard that flattery is like perfume: something to be smelled, not swallowed.” The play’s greater, lasting appeal is in its commentary on questions regarding equality and oppression, and the way it reimagines and expands the idea of commitment. 

In their commitment to solving the murder, the ladies stay true to their loaded names. However, despite many proclamations of how the ideal detective would work, each woman’s commitment to the mystery is convoluted and complicated. Loveday Fortescue maintains her tinge of ferocity in her dialogue with an organization for the group, matching the venom of a Fortescue, her aquatic Australian namesake. 

Fortescue can’t imagine attire that models anything but her internalized version of society’s hyper-gendered expectations. She never takes off her elbow-length gloves, instead hiding her hands, the masterminds behind the trio’s investigative chalkboard brainstorming. Her sister, Valeria Hunter, whose first name comes from “Valere” (Latin for strong), soothes her fears of a lost fortune with drops of an illicit drug. Initially, Valeria’s contributions to the group’s efforts end with the coins that she begrudgingly hands them. As for Katherine Smalls, fierceness outperforms her last name. Her unabashed assertiveness is checked by the goofiness of her weapon of self-defense: a “shin kickin’, bare-knuckle boxin” foldable fan.

And yet, despite their absurd gadgets and the large influences of unexplored pasts, all three women show up to crack the case. Each woman has individual motives for investigating the vase. For Valeria, it’s Loveday’s persuasion and her commitment to sisterhood. For Loveday, it is her need to assert her independence as a reaction to the trauma of her past. For Katherine, commitment is a way to model progress and the power of women for future generations.  Unlike a typical heroine, their commitments don’t result in subsumption or self-renunciation. The women bleed from the vessels of an aristocratic 19th Century English environment that they cannot detach from their selfhood, and nor do they pretend to. Instead, their commitment is one that seeks self-realization through action more than it claims to reach for any specific result from their labors.

Dubbed a “cheeky thriller” by Milton herself, “The Victorian Ladies Detective Collective” is a play that gives value to collaborative disunity among three women who seek to uncover a truth that their safety is embedded within. It urges the audience to contextualize commitment in space and time and to view it as a relative pledge rather than a self-sacrificial one. The play ends with a reinforcement of commitment’s importance, juxtaposed against its inevitable unknowns. The certainty in commitment ends at its initiation.

Even outside the lens of commitment, though, the play has much to offer conversations on gender, heritage, home, comedy, and the function of performance, among other things. The play is still showing as well! If you are interested, visit the Public Theatre this week before Nov. 13 to see “The Victorian Ladies Detective Collective.”