Lizbeth of Maplecroft

Cathy Zouves and Debbie Fellas Emma and Lizzie Borden
Cathy Zouves and Debbie Fell
as Emma and Lizzie Borden

“On a sweltering afternoon in August, Lizzie Borden appeared on her porch and announced to her neighbors that her father had been murdered…”

It was the first Menendez trial. O.J. before daytime TV. The trial of the century sandwiched between an age of public executions and an age of simulated gore. I went to see this play with a German friend who knew nothing of the American folk legend, and I had the pleasure of reciting from playground memory:

Lizzie Borden took an ax,
Gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

In the play Lizbeth of Maplecroft, playwright Nick Pelino makes clear that legends are subject to second looks. And he gives us another treat for our morbid souls.

The action takes place years after the “incident.” The stage is completely bare around the three middle-aged women: Lizzie (Debbie Fell), her sister (Cathy Zouves), and an innocent bystander, the actress Nance O’Neil (Janet Aspinwall). They travel through time and their own impressions, throwing off sparks at every contact with the other. The balance of the three characters is charged: the bitter, conniving Emma and the high-flown stage diva beautifully bookend an enigmatic Lizzie. Secrets are revealed and mysteries deepen. Through it all, he paints the charged murderess as insular but good-humored, a woman at once complacent, dazy, and keenly perceptive.

This trial and its ruthless crimes were a good match for the author; his resume includes forensic psychology and casting. His research fills the program, and Borden factoids paper the foyer walls (who knew that Lizzie was a kleptomaniac?). He unobtrusively builds his own take without sacrificing character or plot. I must confess, though, that some of the hypotheses are neater than others (I once wondered if it would finish like an episode of Murder, She Wrote). Without revealing anything, the whole picture is convincing and good drama. One vows to watch the History Channel a little more often.

For better or worse, the dialogue is steeped in a precious style of the nineteenth-century stage. It often rides the fine line between high style and high camp. Black humor is used sparingly but well, as when Lizzie boasts to her new friend Nance, “We do still have the chair that father passed away on!” “Passed away on?” asks the bewildered actress. “Of course, we’ve had it recovered since.” Kudos on Pelino’s ear for the epigram: “Silence can be the loudest lie of all when it is properly applied,” or “When you work in the theater you find that tact wastes time.” By contrast, the more “genuine” moments are a little clumsy, as if struggling to get through the layers of petticoats and taffeta. But all is well, since high drama more often prevails over intimate moments.

The lusty performances of the three actresses carry the day. It is one of those rare showcases for women of a certain age. Great smoldering family bickering, New England social claustrophobia, and even a few Sapphic overtones all get a great histrionic turn. A highlight is when Aspinwall gives a completely gratuitous go at Lady Macbeth. You almost feel like you’re getting a “best of” Murderess Row.

Camille Paglia maintained that there would be no female geniuses if there were no female mass murderers. Who was Lizzie Borden? Feminist hero or innocent victim, she continues to fascinate and engage 108 years after her parents’ death.