Miss Holmes is not just gender-bent Doyle. It is an entirely new story, a new universe developed and enriched from Doyle’s classic setting and characters. Its two central characters are re-envisioned with a clear-eyed focus on the repression of women in Doyle’s Victorian England.
Miss Holmes, a woman on the functional outer edge of the Asperger’s spectrum (as an astute audience member pointed out to me in the ladies’ restroom), helps women in trouble for two reasons: because no one else will, and because, like “the new Alsatian wolfhounds,” bred for brains, she would go mad and start biting if she didn’t put her mind to work somehow, express her thoughts, and find her own ways to interact effectively with a world which she perceives all too clearly, but that does not acknowledge her as fully human.
Watson is one of the first twenty women to pass the medical examinations at Edinburgh, as such a fighter who responds to adversity not with fear but with anger, and a intellectual in her own right, much smarter than the humble-minded Dr. John Watson of Doyle. She shares Miss Holmes’s natural lack of regard for convention, but while Miss Holmes is driven by fascination with intellectual problems, Watson is more passionate.
Their agreement is that Watson will room with Holmes because a) her current lodgings are dreadful, b) she’s fascinated with Holmes’s work and agrees that “no one else will do it,” and c) because Holmes acknowledges that she has a characterological inability to notice when she is wandering past the boundaries of unconventionality and into the zone where she could get into real trouble. Since Holmes has already been institutionalized in madhouses several times, she sincerely wishes to stay out of them in future.
The language and handling of class concerns are impeccable, which is something, coming from a 20thC American playwright and production. The set dressing and costumes are charming. The fog is unnecessary and set off my allergies, but we will let that pass. The acting is just terrific. Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Lestrade are re-imagined with more depth and respect than they received from Doyle. The ensemble manages its several roles per supporting actor extremely well, even switching accents successfully. Mandy Walsh as Dr. Watson handles her responsibilities with compassion but also with the clinical pragmatism of a scientist, an emotional woman only when she has leisure for that role, and a creature of action when called upon. Katie McLean Hainsworth as Holmes is a wonder of on-the-spectrum single-mindedness. I adored her wearing a hump and stitches as Igorina in Monstrous Regiment. Here, she is overwhelming, just a miracle.
A recent review at the Chicago Reader called this play “twee Victorian humbug.” I can only assume the reviewer is a closet sexist who has no grasp of history whatsoever: he says the protagonists are “perfectly and unambiguously good women, but they receive no recognition for their unimpeachable talent and resolve because of the draconian male-dominated society in which they live. We’d like to believe such people exist—it’s one of our collective fantasies—so we imagine them into the past in plays.” Apparently he has never heard of any of the titanic feminist, humanist figures of the Victorian era, without whom none of our current social privileges could exist. My regard for you, dear reader, is sufficient that I refrain from naming even the best-known tenth of them; I assume that you know them as well as I do. The play encouraged me to rage at the injustice and yet laugh at the men, which may have been what stung the Reader‘s reviewer into his self-contradictory response.
“Miss Holmes” is a savagely accurate and yet comic wallow in the ugliness of the Victorian backlash against women and the gloriously indomitable courage of Victorian feminism. The play’s grasp of class issues and historical context is impeccable, its witty rebuttal to Doyle both grateful and corrective. I plan to go back to see it again as often as I can manage.