Regional Reviews: Chicago
Miss Holmes Returns
Alan Donahue's scenic design is tremendous. A massive curve of bridge rises from downstage right to upstage left. Its heavy steel beams and massive blocks of gray stone establish the unnerving, unsettled atmosphere that hangs over the story. A series of slender black columns, set in two levels downstage right, establish the entrance to Baker Street and provides plausible separation of space when characters pass each other in the foggy London streets.
The set is otherwise minimal. Holmes spends long stretches of time in a stiff wooden armchair downstage right. The fixed image of the armchair and the temporary nature of the flat's few other furnishings–a pair of moveable stools and a fold-away cork board that houses the case she and Watson have been working for the four years that have elapsed since the first installment–suggest the isolation that Sherlock both suffers under (and combats) over the course of the play.
The lighting design by Diane Fairchild and sound design by Erick Backus support Donahue's moody visuals beautifully, and Emily McConnell's costumes add important depth. Walsh's work in 2016's Miss Holmes was no simple gender swap and the political, economic, and social vulnerability of women is even more central to Miss Holmes Returns. McConnell's design captures the subtleties of class and race skillfully and does an able job facilitating the doubling of roles by cast members.
In the first installment. Walsh focused on the individual risk a female Sherlock faces courtesy of her eccentricities. She is at the mercy of her brother Mycroft and spends a fair amount of time in an asylum. While this threat continues to loom here, Walsh focuses on the risk of taking on the institutional control of women through medicine by bringing Holmes and Watson in contact with the real-life feminist and social reformer Josephine Butler, whose focus is on repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, a series of laws passed by Parliament designed to punish and control women, particularly prostitutes, who stood accused of transmitting venereal diseases to member of the British military.
In addition to featuring a white, working-class woman whose life is inalterably shaped by the Acts, Walsh also introduces a British-born woman of Indian descent who has managed to train as a nurse but still finds it virtually impossible to find any safety or stability. In the hands of another writer, it's easy to imagine these choices dragging the dialogue into something heavy-handed and scolding. Walsh does more than steer clear of this, though, as he skillfully weaves the themes together to convey how the personal is always political and vice versa.
McLean Hainsworth is absolutely stellar as a subdued, distressed Holmes who has not only failed to make any significant progress on the conspiracy she and Watson uncovered in the first installment, but has also labored under the burden of knowing that her freedom to move in the world depends on how useful–or inconvenient–Mycroft finds her to be. And just as she carries off the serious with skill and subtlety, she also maintains the wit, confidence, and awkward humanity of the character she has created.
Opposite McLean Hainsworth, Mandy Walsh maintains Watson's status as Holmes' equal and her truest friend. As Walsh conveys, her character has fared better in the four years since the two first embarked on the case of the professor, although her concern for Sherlock runs deep, and their relationship remains rooted in mutual respect.
As Adam Worthington, Tommy Malouf is a worthy counterpart for McLean Hainsworth in a completely different way. He provides the nerdy Worthington with precisely the right amount of over-the-top to shed light on Holmes's quirks and remind the audience of who can sail through the world in such a way and who cannot. As Daniel Burke, Malouf is not quite as successful, but we only see that character in heightened flashbacks, so this may be a minor bump in the writing or direction.
In the supporting cast as Olive McGann, Hilary Williams has an appeal that calls to mind the best of the actors that show up in the classic mystery and horror movies of the 1940s and '50s. Vinithra Rajagopalan is very good as well, as Priya Singh. She carries herself with an icy precision that is effectively juxtaposed to her desperation in flashbacks and her well-founded fury as she tells her story.
As Mrs. Hudson, Annie Slivinski hovers over Sherlock with genuine concern, but also represents the voice of middle-class "respectable" women who ally themselves with the patriarchy. She's also tremendous fun as Mrs. Wiggins, the face of Sherlock's "knitting circle," a group of women who serve as her eyes and ears on the dangerous streets. Julie Partyka has a relatively small role as Josephine Butler, but her performance and Slivinski's complement one another well and provide another layer of depth to the show.
Linsey Falls' performance as Inspector Lestrade is engaging, as he is equal parts frustrated by and fascinated with Holmes, and Christopher Hainsworth is a delectably superior and hatable Mycroft.
Miss Holmes Returns runs through October 16, 2022, at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood, Chicago IL. For tickets, please call 773-761-4477 or visit www.lifelinetheatre.com.