Detectives Loveday Fortescue (Danielle O’Hare) and Katie Smalls (Chelsea Bearce) hone their umbrella fighting skills during a practice duel. Credit: Robbie Sweeney

Escape from the Asylum, a brand new Patricia Milton production from Berkeley’s Central Works Theater Company, is a lively, engaging, and edifying tale of three strong-minded single women in Victorian London — the city’s only female consulting detectives.

Escape from the Asylum, Berkeley Central Works at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., through April 24

They take on the male establishment to rescue Mahetabel Fernsby, a renowned woman explorer who has been unfairly committed to an insane asylum by her overbearing and greedy husband. Her sin: she likes to travel — outside of England!

Sisters Loveday (Danielle O’Hare) and Valeria (Jan Zvaifler) run a boarding house for “single lady” actresses. Katie (Chelsea Bearce), an ebullient, worldly-wise Black Southerner from the United States, is the third leg of the detecting triumvirate. The forthright and uncompromising women are approached by Banderford Clutterbuck, dastardly husband of Mahetabel, the explorer. He wants to hire the trio to find missing artifacts that he suspects his maid has stolen.

But the detectives decide to free Mahetabel instead. To do so, they must take on the slimy Viennese private sanitarium owner, Dr. Florian von Grabstetter, who is more than willing to commit women with “wandering wombs.” The talented Alan Coyne admirably plays all the male roles.

Escape from the Asylum is the next iteration of Central Works’ 2019 hit, The Victorian Ladies’ Detective Collective. And most of that team are back in full force: skilled author Patricia Milton, accomplished director Gary Graves (Central Works’ co-director), fine actors Chelsea Bearce, Alan Coyne, and Jan Zvaifler (Central Works’ co-director/founder). Newcomer Danielle O’Hare is a great addition.

Madame Valeria Hunter, (Jan Zvaifler) is a reluctant medium conducting a séance with her sister Loveday Fortescue (Danielle O’Hare) and a bereaved Herr Dr. Florian Von Grabstetter (Alan Coyne). Credit: Robbie Sweeney

In writing this play, author Milton investigated Victorian women’s lack of freedom and civil rights. They easily fell prey to accusations of “hysteria” or “deviance,” which could quickly lead to institutionalization. And even Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is reexamined with 21st century eyes since Rochester’s first wife is imprisoned in the attic. The playwright gives her forward-thinking women characters just the right number of feminist quips to make their points without seeming didactic.

Escape from the Asylum is a delight. It’s an entertaining story with wit and a modern sensibility, complete with a well-executed umbrella-sword fight and a comically melodramatic séance. The clever plot twist at the end is icing on the Victorian cake.

The comedy runs Thursday-Sunday through April 24 at the Berkeley City Club, that magnificent Julia Morgan-designed building, at 2315 Durant Ave. Escape from the Asylum has two acts and lasts 100 minutes, including one intermission.

The theater can seat only about 50 people, so get your tickets early. All remaining seats are available on a sliding scale at noon on the day of the show ($15-$40 on Fridays and Saturdays, pay-what-you-can on Thursdays. For information, extended dates, and tickets, visit the theater’s website.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...