AFTER THE MURDERS: The Quest of Lizzie Borden

by DICK KEREKES and LEISLA SANSOM
Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre (ABET), presented the World Premier of Richard Wolf’s play After the Murders, at their theatre in the Adele Grage Cultural Center at 716 Ocean Blvd in Atlantic Beach Florida. The show will continue until November 7, 2009. Call 249-7177 for information and reservations.
Playwright Richard Wolf was a resident of New York for thirty years where he worked as a pianist, wrote plays, composed musicals, and penned three novels. He now makes his home in Fernandina Beach Florida. His play Rear End debuted at ABET in 2008.
Wolf’s director notes in the program indicated he had a lifelong fascination with the legend of Lizzie Borden. She was found not guilty of murder by a jury in 1883, in a trial that certainly had many peculiarities, too numerous to mention. No one else was ever charged with the murders, and Lizzie lived on in Fall River, Massachusetts, the town where the murders took place, until her death at age 62.
The judgment of her contemporaries was that she did commit the grisly murders, as reflected in the still-popular playground rhyme made up by an anonymous writer and published in newspapers in the late 1800s:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

Wolf has done extensive research into this case, reading volumes of material published in newspapers and in books about Ms. Borden. He has created a stage drama that, as the title implies, covers her life After the Murders. The play probably has 40 scenes (I did not count them), with many flashbacks to the trial and participants. Along the way we learn many facts about the day of the crime in 1882, who was in the house where her father and stepmother were murdered, and what each person was doing. You may draw your own conclusions as to whether Lizzie was capable of murdering and did murder, or, as a number of modern students of historical crimes have argued, whether another party was responsible.
Karen Garrett is excellent in the role of Lizzie. The modest Ms. Garrett in her program biography listed only a couple of her many, many leading roles. She has been one of Jacksonville’s busiest actresses for a number of years. (This is play #16 for Karen at ABET).
Susan Roche, who played the wild grandmother and the giant in Theatre Jacksonville’s Into the Woods, captures the demure nature of Emma Borden, Lizzie’s sister, in a wonderfully understated performance.
Wolf created a wonderful original character to act as somewhat of a narrator of the stage action. Redgie Gutshall is Gus, a newspaperman at the Fall Rivers Globe (a nonexistent paper). Gutshall talks directly to the audience if we were the jury. His character is a cross between Mark Twain and Will Rodgers, and when he asks questions of the audience, many actually answer. Gus provides much needed humor about a dreadful act, the axe murders of the Bordens.
Other real characters from the actual trial transcripts include Margaret-Ann Holmes Hennessey, as Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s Irish maid who is in the home at the time of the murder. Thomas Russ, in his second show at ABET (first one “Forrest), is Andrew Jennings an attorney. Young Carley Mullen plays a child who meets Lizzie in a park just one year before her death.
Isom Steve Philips is making his stage debut in three roles. He had previously worked in film and was in the HBO movie “Recount”. I was impressed with his opening of the play as Judge Dewey, as well as his Reverend Jubb and Mr. Thurber. He is a natural, and you will be seeing more of him.
Clayton Zeroski does a cameo role as a drug store clerk, and this is his first ABET appearance as well. David Boyer plays three roles; the most important that of prosecuting attorney Hosea Knowlton. Boyer has been gracing local stages for over 50 years and he added just the right temperament and stature to the attorney’s portrayal
University of Florida telecommunication graduate Kyle Sieg makes his debut in a Wolf-created character, Ray, a cub reporter on the local paper. Gus, his boss, asks him to do a 21-year follow up on the Lizzie Borden trial. Sieg, a handsome guy with a strong stage presence and lots of potential, will, I predict, be back.
Greta Russe, another excellent character actress on local stages for years, plays one of the most interesting real life characters in this drama, Nance O’Neil. Lizzie met O’Neil in Boston in 1904 and a relationship developed that lasted for two years. There were rumors but no proof that this was an intimate affair (known as a Boston marriage in those days), but no one knew for sure. Wolf’s script implies O’Neil had a propensity for romantic affairs with women, and that spiced things up a bit. I loved Ms. Russe’s performance. Smooth, oh so smooth.
I can’t decide if I would rather see Jack Barnard acting on stage or see a play he has directed. He is so good at both. I think he did an excellent job of casting this show, as all the characters matched the physical idea I had in my mind from doing a lot of reading about the case in the past week.
The light crew, Bryan Frank and Andrew McCartney (along with multiple assistants), certainly had their hands full, with probably three dozen light cues (if not more). The set was simple. All the walls were draped in black curtains. On the right side were couches representing the Borden household. On the left was an editor’s desk, also used as the witness stand. The lights switched back and forth between the blackouts after the short scenes. Eerie, funereal music was played before the show and at the intermission.
Costuming, by Zeina Salame, was largely (and skillfully) limited to a palette of black, gray, and white, with clothing appropriate to the era and in keeping with the set design. An exception was the costuming for Nance O’Neil, who appeared in lavish, colorful gowns.
I liked Richard Wolf’s script and it kept our interest, with its focus on aspects of Lizzie’s life that have received little prior attention on stage. This play has great potential – we’ll hope Mr. Wolf’s former home town – NYC – is next!!!
Don’t miss this one. Even though you know the ending, the journey getting there is interesting. Thanks to The Tom Nehl fund of the Community Foundation for their support and thanks to The Robin Shepherd Group for the fabulous poster of Lizzie Borden, it is outstanding.

About FOLIO