Tuesday , February 20 2024
A few days in the life of Lizzie Borden, 12 years later.

Theater Review (NYC): Nance O’Neil

Well over a century has passed since the famous Fall River murders, but we’re still fascinated by Lizzie Borden. One of the the best musicals of 2009 took on the violent mystery of the murders of Borden’s father and stepmother, of which she was acquitted and no one ever convicted; now playwright David Foley has imagined the details behind her friendship, 12 years later, with famed actress Nance O’Neil.

In Blue Coyote’s production of Nance O’Neil the title character is played with regal splendor, if slightly overenunciated formality, by the impressive Rachel Brown (also known as burlesque performer Sapphire Jones), whom I remember as being effective in a very different type of role in The Night Carter was Bad. Jonna McElrath, who was also superb in Blue Coyote’s Conversations on Russian Literature, plays Borden with, if you can picture such a thing, free-spirited focus. A complex character, she haughtily ignores her continued notoriety, but the flip side is a childish pretense that she can live the normal life of leisure her wealth would ensure if she were anyone else.

Borden and O’Neil were rumored to have had a love affair, though some historians doubt this. Foley postulates it as unrequited, with the glamorous actress parlaying Borden’s infatuation into various benefits for herself—a new house, relief from her debts. In any case, something about their association caused a terrible rift between Lizzie and her sister Emma, as this 1905 newspaper clipping attests. Jane Titus plays Emma with tragic gravitas—”she doesn’t feel right unless something’s wrong,” Lizzie casually observes—while Frank Anderson, who co-starred with McElrath in Conversations, is all sardonic bemusement as Nance’s producer and svengali McKee Rankin…except in one beautifully played, drunken scene where his loneliness gets the better of him.

It’s a melodrama of sad partings that engages to some degree in a dialogue with the traditions of theater itself, specifically Victorian-era theater in the United States. Played in formal style, it can feel a bit stiff, but that does make the gutsy moments the more effective. Although the play posits a solution to the old mystery that doesn’t hold Lizzie culpable, this Lizzie is thoroughly capable of calling on the powers of her legend when provoked.

The show features a fifth star, comprised of Christi Coufal’s lovely period costumes and Emily Inglis’s meticulous, rose-hued set. Gary Shrader’s direction is appropriately formal. Nance O’Neil runs through Oct. 9 at the Access Theater at 380 Broadway.

Photo by Beau Allulli

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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