“Escape from the Asylum” Highlights Women’s Cunning—at Central Works
Patricia Milton Wraps Women’s Rights in Clever Mystery
by Patricia L. Morin
Central Works’ “Escape from the Asylum” returns us to the male-dominated Victorian era, to shine a powerful light on women’s fight for freedom.
The first scene opens with an exciting sword fight—using umbrellas as swords—between two women of the Victorian Ladies Detective Collective, the first female detective agency in England. We are drawn into a startling, comic image of women in Victorian dresses violently dueling. Their sharp wit surpasses their label as merely “ladies.”
The bickering sisters—excitable, fearful skeptic Valeria (versatile Jan Zvaifler) and logical planner Loveday (lively Danielle O’Hare)—spar with each other, lovingly. Valeria and Loveday, polar opposites, spark sisterly tensions, playing delightfully off of each other.
In contrast, a visiting American woman-of-color, the grounded, sarcastic Katherine (humorous Chelsea Bearce) inserts facts and insights stemming from her U.S. experiences with bigotry and inequality. Katherine makes a clever partner in the battle against patriarchy.
Alan Coyne, master of magnificent disguises, begins as a misogynistic snob who tries to hire the Lady Detectives to follow his maid, whom he swears stole five items from his home. But, as a gentleman, he is not allowed by law to follow a woman anywhere.
As a controlling husband, Coyne divulges that he committed his wife to an asylum, legal in those days, claiming that she was made ill by a Wandering Uterus! Loveday gasps when she hears his wife’s name, because she knows the woman as a forthright thinker and world traveler.
The ladies refuse the case but decide on their own to investigate the supposed theft and the wife unfairly committed to an asylum. In 1895 London, these Victorian detectives shine in their devotion to women’s rights.
Director Gary Graves steers the acting and movement so that each woman embodies a female personality type: logical vs. passionate vs. outspoken. The British tone of the conversations and Katherine’s southern accent give the play a distanced, historical feeling. The mystery, with remarkable twist and turns, some not well-defined, holds our interest, but leaves question marks floating in the air.
Graves keeps the pieces of this complex plot impressively connected in the confines of the intimate, parlor-sized room.
Tammy Berlin’s elegant Victorian costumes add distinction to each character. Berlin even uses “hankie pockets” sewn into each dress—another delightful detail. Michael Berg’s stylized wigs give each character a distinctive look.
But there’s more than male misogyny versus female cunning in Patricia Milton’s spider web story. Milton weaves “Herstories” about social class, gender roles, and racial prejudice into her play.
The independent American POC, Katherine, pushes her own boundaries to provoke reactions from men and women. She mocks Emily Bronte, saying, “Bronte has never given voice to people like me,” vanquishing British snobbery.
Katherine’s insistence on being true to herself, fearlessly, and her escape from social bondage ring true and clear. The Victorian Ladies Detective Collective solves the mystery, but they also expose real crimes against all women, worldwide.
“Escape from the Asylum” raises our awareness about inequality that is still rampant, today. Milton keeps us guessing until the unexpected ending with the “Locked Door Mystery.” See if you can solve the mystery before they do!
“Escape from the Asylum” by Patricia Milton, directed by Gary Graves, fight choreography by Dave Maier, at Central Works, Berkeley. Info: CentralWorks.org – to April 24, 2022.
Cast: Chelsea Bearce, Alan Coyne, Danielle O’Hare, and Jan Zvaifler.
Banner photo: Danielle O’Hare (Loveday) & Chelsea Bearce (Katherine). Photos by Robbie Sweeney