Rachel Brown and Jonna McElrath in Nance O'Neil
(© Beau Allulli)
Rachel Brown and Jonna McElrath in Nance O'Neil
(© Beau Allulli)
We all know how Lizzie Borden may have used an axe to wreak some serious intrafamilial havoc, but did you know that a dozen years later, she took up with acclaimed thespian Nance O'Neil? In Nance O'Neil, now at the Access Theater, playwright David Foley has used that curious historical postscript to craft a fascinating psychological drama.

Foley never fully reveals his take on O'Neil, aka "the American Bernhardt" (played with great aplomb by willowy Rachel Brown). Was O'Neil a flagrant opportunist or a soft-hearted feminist sympathizer? The dialogue provides her hints at both strains at once.

However, the women's attraction is easily explained. Lizzie (played less winningly by Jonna McElrath) had grown up in a harsh, penurious household, and finally liberated at age 32 from her father's rigid, joyless regime, she quite literally moved up in the world, buying a fancy house in Fall River's heights, and rechristened herself, rather grandly, "Lizbeth." What better boon companion for the new improved Lizzie, shunned within her own social sphere, than an open-minded woman of the world?

Two characters in Foley's play are not at all happy about the women's growing rapport: Nance's manager, mentor, and former lover McKee Rankin (the serviceable Frank Anderson) and Lizzie's drab, pious elder sister, Emma (the wonderfully dour Jane Titus). As the play progresses, allegiances will get tugged, latent tendencies are revealed, and the inevitable seismic shifts take place. Indeed, the most rewarding person to watch as these frictions unfold is Titus' tightly controlled Emma. Appalled at the presence of an actress in her midst, she won't even look at the interloper, as if to do so would be to sanction her very existence.

Brown rises brilliantly to a plethora of challenges. As Nance, she must act the free spirit chafing at the limitations imposed on women of her era; she does, while remaining -- in posture and deportment -- true to the strictures of the age. In Nance's various acting roles (Judith, Magda, Lady Macbeth), she must duplicate antiquated dramatic styles -- the stylized gestures and heightened oratory. Brown handles it all so well, you're left eager to see her take on the whole canon, for real.

Unfortunately, McElrath is too quick to caricature Lizzie's fault lines. Instead of hinting at instability, McElrath plays it up to the hilt, declaiming every line as if her script were printed in 18-point type. Early on, O'Neil calls Borden "adorable," and it's hard to see how this adjective might apply to a clumsy, braying oaf who acts like a four-year-old who has had way too much birthday cake.