Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily, by Katie Forgette. Directed by Margarett Perry.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Kirk Jackson and Christopher V. Edwards; photo: Mairi McCormick
"People are either charming or tedious."
Jennifer Rohn and Oliver Wadsworth; photo: Mairi McCormick
Nobody loves a smart-aleck, a know-it-all, a show-off. At least no one admits to loving someone like that. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, more often than not, no one even admits to finding him useful. Love doesn't enter into it. If it wasn't for Dr. Watson he might not even have a friend. On stage at the Dorset Theatre Festival a new Sherlock Holmes play presents a slightly white-washed Holmes, a man whom people admire enough to go to bat for when the going gets rough. And this Sherlock is a special sort who actually manages a bit of gratitude for the personal favors done him by others, even a woman.
The woman is special also. She is Lily Langtry, the actress who could have toppled thrones, the woman loved by Judge Roy Bean who named an American town after her. Langtry was the mistress of the Prince of Wales, other members of the nobility and at least a dozen men of wealth and influence. Arthur Conan Doyle used her as the model for the actress Irene Adler in his short story "A Scandal in Bohemia" - the first Sherlock Holmes short story - which spawned the Broadway musical "Baker Street" and serves as the basis for this new play as well. Adler has been renamed Langtry and the story takes on a historic immediacy that actually has little basis in fact.
Doyle's story was written in 1891; this play is set two years later when Langtry's illegitimate daughter was about twelve years old. The actress's best friend, playwright Oscar Wilde, is writing his soon to be hit play (1895) "The Importance of Being Forthright" and spouting epigrams left and right. Lily is embroiled in a potential scandal and to keep the fat from hitting the fire she and Wilde appeal to Sherlock Holmes to save her already damaged reputation. He takes the case, finds himself opposing Professor Moriarty and realises the power of love that a woman can bring into his personal life. Thank heavens for Oscar Wilde. Bon mot heaven is within his earnest grasp...wait a minute...earnest? You get the picture.
The writing is a bit on the amateur side in this play but the combination of real life figures with fictitious ones is delightfully played out in spite of the innocence of this author. "...The Case of the Jersey Lily" is an enjoyable excursion into quasi-history and at its high point, the duel between Moriarty and Holmes choreographed in the silliest way by Unkle Dave's Fight-House, it is a very theatrical piece that cannot help but capture your heart.
Jennifer Rohn is a very solid Langtry, not as pretty as some but certainly as strong and forceful as the original. She plays the grandeur of the woman and the strengths but there is little of the weakness that would make her dependent on the man she has hired to save her reputation. Her Sherlock is played by Kirk Jackson whose looks are similar to illustrations of Holmes, but whose somewhat exaggerated facial structure makes him less compelling that other actors who have taken on this part. He manages to convince with his Holmes, but never to compel. He is an actor here, not the man, and he acts superbly. What Jackson cannot do, however, is keep us at arms distance emotionally while his Holmes is becoming involved himself with Langtry.
Brian Dykstra is excellent as Moriarty, a man more directly involved with the day-to-day operation of his schemes than he is usually portrayed as being. Dykstra allows emotional flares to pull him through difficult moments. He is bigger than life at times and his entrance into a scene is sometimes a theatrical miracle to behold. In an almost thankless part, Christopher V. Edwards takes on Dr. Watson with charm and a diffuse appearance that almost gives the impression of being caught in someone else's imagination. His scenes with Rohn's Langtry are so soft and sweet to almost seem to be from another play, or another world.
Dana Berger is wonderful as the actress Mrs. Tory who plays several of her own roles while forcing the plot against Lily Langtry to new levels. Carlos Dengler gives class-conscious strengths to both John Smythe and Abdul Karim and he is so different in these two roles that you must check the program to see who is playing these two men. He is very talented.
It is the very silly role of Oscar Wilde, played by Oliver Wadsworth, that drives this play. The actor involved in this production is a literal joy to watch and listen to as he moves skillfully through the wayward plot. Most of the laughter comes from Wilde and Wadsworth knows how to deliver those lines. Even if you don't like Wilde or Holmes you cannot help but enjoy the way Wadsworth illuminates their heretofore undisclosed friendship.
Margarett Perry has done some wonderful things with stage pictures as she moves her cast from place to place, from scene to scene. With set designer Debra Booth, and lighting designer Michael Giannitti she has created some extraordinary pictures in a unit set that serves as the framework for so many different sorts of places. Special effects all work in their highly theatrical ways as well. David Toser's costumes are perfect for the period portrayed and add a sense of relevance to the proceedings, even allowing a disguised Holmes to amuse us and himself at the same time.
This is not a great play but it is thoroughly enjoyable in this production. The company play well together and many of the participants are relatively local folk, professionals all but Vermonters through and through. English accents don't seem to be their thing, but after a few minutes it doesn't really seem to matter all that much. The play's the thing, it seems, with which to catch the conscience of a king. And this one does catch you most of the time.
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT through July 25. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line at www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.