Lizzie Borden at Eight O’Clock
nytheatre.com review by Di Jayawickrema
March 24, 2011
“Lizzie Borden took an ax / And gave her mother forty whacks / When she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty one,” goes the infamous rhyme that forms the beginning and end of what most people know about her. Despite being acquitted, Lizzie Borden remains one of the most infamous villains in American pop culture. It would have been easy for this one-woman play to paint a picture of an innocent “Lizzie Borden you never knew” but Lizzie Borden at Eight O’Clock presents a far more interesting creature. Ellen Barry’s Lizzie is at once a sympathetic figure and a cold, unhinged woman who does seem capable of murder—and who reminds us of what we in turn might be capable of. In a subtle, masterful performance, Barry flips the mirror around: what begins as a public excavation of the Lizzie Borden case turns into a trial of her captivated audience, and the production ends up working both as a murder mystery and as a psychological portrait of a woman, a town, and an ongoing national fascination with all the gory details.
Lizzie Borden strides onto the minimal stage in an ankle-length black dress, hair prim, a silver cross prominently worn around her throat. She is the image of a demure, aging New England spinster, which is precisely why the case became the sensationalist crime of the century. How could a wealthy woman of spotless repute hack her parents to death? In obsessive detail, Borden restages her trial to prove why she couldn’t have done it…while unwittingly providing several reasons why she could have. For starters, as Lizzie calmly informs you, Mrs. Borden was her stepmother, not her mother, and the two only received a total of 29 whacks. “I know it’s unseemly for a woman to talk about such things…but it’s why you’re all here, isn’t it?” she asks with a cutting chill in her voice. The audience is a stand-in for Lizzie Borden’s fellow townsmen who have come to hear her speak at the Fall River Historical Society, decades after the 1892 murders, and she frequently engages audience members who were involved in the investigation and trial to great effect.
Mitch Giannunzio’s script is a nuanced work and Barry uses it with great focus, playing Borden mostly from a place of clinical emotional reserve—with sudden flashes of vulnerability, anger, devastation, and even touches of irony. “Oh, someone brought a child,” she exclaims with delight, peering into the audience. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill any children…yet.” At times, she seems an unfairly persecuted woman, at others, a truly menacing presence; Barry paints a complex portrait in deft strokes. It is difficult to say whether her sometimes chilling demeanor springs from guilt, long years of unwarranted suspicion, or her particularly cramped life. An unmarriageable woman, living under the thumb of a notoriously miserly father and stepmother, Lizzie could have had her reasons but as she points out, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove she did it.
And just when she has you convinced again, she reenacts the brutal murders—once swinging her imaginary hatchet over this reviewer’s head, in fact, and it is a delightfully frightening moment that throws the matter into question all over again. I expect Barry is not the first actor to wish to take an ax to a critic’s head—but she has nothing to fear from me. This is a nuanced, quietly captivating production and its whole strength rests on the capable shoulders of Ellen Barry.