Mitch Giannunzio’s one-woman play, Lizzie Borden at Eight O’Clock, is about to finish its March-April 2011 run at the WorkShop Theater Company in Manhattan.
The conceit of the play is that a few years after her acquittal for the infamous hatchet murders of her father and her step-mother, and after suffering the gossip and shunning of her townspeople, Lizzie Borden agrees to finally tell all for a Fall River Historical Society fund-raiser. She will identify the real murderer.
That makes the audience for this monodrama enact the roles of the people of Fall River, including presumably some who had wanted her hanged. During the course of her monolog, Lizzie calls the room about that, but she never loses her composure. At least not until the end. At times she notices in the back of the audience some particular persons involved in her case, including the judge, and she names them. She is cordial to them but we know that she is holding back.
From the very beginning, Lizzie Borden proclaims her innocence and most of her monolog demolishes the case against her like an Agatha Christie detective finally revealing everything in the drawing room.
Lizzie Borden takes pains to show how she could not possibly have committed the murder. In her interwoven account of family relations, every now and then a little stinkbomb of resentment and anger appears quietly to enrich her logical analysis.
This production is marvelous. Ellen Barry is a fine Lizzie Borden. Her remarkable stage presence is enough to maintain audience attention even during relatively long passages of exposition made necessary by the premise, and even though monodramas as long as this one are not easy to sustain. She is especially strong when the end of the play requires a delicate balance of emotions and hints of matters left unsaid. Mitch Giannunzio has insured that her monolog becomes increasingly intense as the play progresses.
The ending rises in intensity as Lizzie, perhaps overly refreshed with some elderberry wine and wearied by too much civility, starts to go off the edge. She identifies the person she thinks did the murders. Suddenly we wonder if she is not indeed maniacal enough to have crushed the victims’ skulls, and perhaps too a few audience skulls. This unsettling ending is especially shocking as the opening of her monolog is comforting and reassuring about her innocence, with few undercurrents to weaken our credulity and our sympathy.
Mitch Giannunzio’s script is spare and visually evocative, providing rich mise en scene for the mind’s eye, to compensate for the absence of multiple actors and complex stage business. The few props have been chosen well.
Kenneth Tigar has directed the production astutely to achieve a crisp pace on a small stage. His own successful experiences as an actor in monodramas serve him well here.
Ellen Barry, Mitch Giannunzio, and Kenneth Tigar have worked together before, and based on this performance I hope they find occasions to work together again.