#1 Victorian ladies detective agency

Six years ago, Lifeline Theatre unveiled the world premiere of Christopher M. Walsh’s Miss Holmes—a cunning gender-bent take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baker Street polymath that predated the film Enola Holmes by several years (though not the young-adult series of novels by Nancy Springer). Now Katie McLean Hainsworth’s Sherlock and Mandy Walsh’s Dr. Dorothy Watson are back to solve more crimes and stir more shit in the patriarchal colonialist cesspool of Victorian London. 

As in the first outing, Sherlock and Watson are focused on helping wronged women while risking the wrath of Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft (Christopher Hainsworth), who is some sort of fixer for the deep state of the British empire. While Sherlock isn’t imprisoned in a mental institution at her brother’s behest this time, Mycroft still haunts the edges of the story, and sets in motion a couple of key plot developments.

Miss Holmes Returns Through 10/16: Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2:30 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; open captioning Sat 9/17, 2:30 PM and Fri 10/7, 7:30 PM; touch tour and audio description Sun 10/2, 2:30 PM (tour begins 1 PM); Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood, 773-761-4477, ext. 703, lifelinetheatre.com, $45 ($35 seniors and active/retired military with ID, $15 students with ID)

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At the heart of the story, though, is the burgeoning women’s rights movement in England, embodied in the push to overturn the Contagious Diseases Act, which empowered the government to detain and examine any woman accused of prostitution. Were men who frequented sex workers similarly detained? Surely you jest. Did people use the act to wreak vengeance on those women they deemed enemies? Yes—and that also provides a key plot point in Walsh’s somewhat convoluted narrative.

Josephine Butler (Julie Partyka), the head of the Ladies’ National Association, which leads the campaign to repeal the law, seeks out Sherlock’s assistance when one of her nurses, Priya Singh (Vinithra Raj), is suspected of killing Daniel Burke (Tommy Malouf). Burke is a conservative behind-the-scenes man of power and a money launderer (think Steve Bannon) who opposes the repeal of the act while also apparently availing himself of sex workers. Since Priya is Indian, it’s even less likely that she’ll get a fair shake from the deeply racist establishment if she comes forward than a white woman would. 

Sherlock and Watson have already examined the crime scene, thanks to long-suffering Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade (Linsey Falls), whose soft spot for Sherlock leads him to cut a few official corners from time to time. Sherlock has concluded it was an act of self-defense, and gets her “knitting circle” of women (her version of the Baker Street Irregulars) out looking after the on-the-run Priya, while the Mycroft-devised noose (or what his sister calls “the great grinding machine”) of extralegal state power around Sherlock, Watson, and Lestrade grows tighter. The bookish tutor, Mr. Worthington (Malouf), who is alleged by Priya’s pal, Olive (Hilary Williams), to have had a thing for Priya, also seems awfully sweet on Sherlock—which confounds the aloof detective (who is also mistrustful of men for good reason). 

The story feels a little overly expositional at times, especially in the first act (by contrast, the revelations in the second act come on at a rat-a-tat pace in Elise Kauzlaric’s staging), but the chemistry between Hainsworth’s Sherlock and Walsh’s Watson, as in the first outing, remains delightful—particularly as the latter tries to explain to her usually perspicacious pal that the men who are seeking her attention may actually be attracted to her for more than her investigative insights. Hainsworth’s habit of nervously flicking her index finger against her corseted midsection suggests not just a constantly roving mind, but also a woman who is, in her own way, trying to tap into her tightly wound emotional core.

Not all the climactic moments felt organically connected at the performance I attended, but I suspect that the rhythms will become more assured over the run. As it is, Miss Holmes Returns offers a blend of fan-service Sherlockiana with a healthy dose of sisterhood.

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