By John Lyle Belden
On Aug. 4, 1892, somebody murdered Abby and Andrew Borden in Fall River, Mass. This is historical fact, as well as the arrest and trial of Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, for the killings. The last 130 years have seen the growth of legends, myths, and a nursery rhyme around the incident, the kind of true-crime story familiar to those who remember the sensationalized double-murder trial of a former football star in the 1990s.
Buck Creek Players takes a whack at the lore with “Lizzie Borden of Fall River” by Tim Kelly, directed by Ben Jones.
The first act sets up the infamous events. Lizzie (Renee Whiten Lopez) is smart and headstrong, as well as kind to those she loves, even her strict and stingy father, Andrew (Tim Latimer). She shows no love or affection to stepmother Abby (Sarah Latimer), whom she is sure married her father for his wealth and controls his decisions. Lizzie and sister Emma (Rachel Bush) are very close, sharing to a degree an impatience with their father and distrust of the stepmother. Their live-in maid Bridget (Amelia Tryon) is adored by the girls, but has problems with the parents, who blame her and not the days-old mutton for recent stomach ailments.
Other characters who factor into the coming events include handyman Mr. Sousa (Josh Rooks) from whom Andrew withholds part of his pay because “you might spend it foolishly;” Aunt Vinnie Morris (Cyrena Knight), who wishes to claim a New Hampshire property promised by her sister (the girls’ mother) as her dying wish, but which Andrew refuses as there is no binding contract; neighbor Mrs. Churchill (Lea Ellingwood), who is outraged that Lizzie took the church’s Sunday School superintendent position she felt entitled to; church minister Rev. Jubb (Matt Trgovac), who is very fond of Lizzie; and the girls’ friend Alice (Cass Knowling).
Fortunately, the dire deed is done with sound-effects, the only blood being on Lizzie’s hands after she discovers her father’s body.
The second act, appropriate for an audience raised on Law & Order reruns, focuses on the arrest and trial. Patrolman Harrington (Jason Roll) at first has to protect against the mob and onlookers around the Borden home, but then has to slap the cuffs on Lizzie when the Marshall (Dustin Miller) comes to arrest her. On her side are Boston attorney Ms. Jennings (Melissa Sandullo) and New York Sun reporter Amy Robsart (Nora Burkhart). At one point Sousa’s wife Carlotta (Breanna Helms) appears, concerned that her husband is a potential suspect.
Though it does present its own theory of what happened, don’t expect this drama to be the conclusive last word. Lizzie Borden’s guilt or innocence is still a matter of debate, and Kelly took some license with characters and events.
Presented as an entertaining history-based whodunit, the play works with a bit of melodrama and almost comic foreshadowing. In what I suspect is a mixture of the script, Jones’ guidance, and Sarah Latimer’s stony delivery, Abby is so thoroughly despicable, we all want to take a turn with the hatchet. Tim Latimer’s performance shows Andrew to be more a product of his times and frugal upbringing, but not entirely without heart. Tryon’s Sullivan is sweet and likable, even when the discovery of poison adds her to the suspect list. Rooks manages to perfectly balance Sousa’s principled stance and his hot-headedness. Knight gives Aunt Vinnie charming sweetness that gives way to injured desperation. Ellingwood delivers a mix of nosy and nasty that helps make Churchill an unreliable witness. Bush masterfully works Emma’s interesting arc that draws her slowly from the periphery to the center of the plot.
Lopez gives us a fully realized, relatable character in Lizzie, with charisma somewhere between Susan B. Anthony and Mary Poppins, but always with that dark edge, a shadow that still follows over a century later.
So, who did it? Who saw what and when? What of the poison, or the destroyed dress? You have one more weekend to find out, Friday through Sunday, Aug. 12-14 at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.