Ax me no questions
The Lights are Warm and Coloured
Reno, NV 89512
While watching the Travel Channel’s October marathon of ghost-themed programming, I caught a segment on the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, Mass. It seems this scene of two grisly hatchet murders in 1892 is now a charming bed and breakfast and a favorite of ghost hunters looking to have the bejesus scared out of them. The show’s psychic shuddered as she “saw” Lizzie strike her stepmother 19 times with an ax.
No one really knows what happened. Despite the old rhyme, the jury was never convinced that Lizzie Borden had taken an ax and given her stepmother and father those whacks, so they acquitted her. Theories abound, many of which appear in William Norfolk’s The Lights are Warm and Coloured, now brought to the Studio on 4th by TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada.
Norfolk’s story has fun with the notion that Lizzie actually received a nice inheritance from her dead parents and took up residence with her sister, Emma. They remained in Fall River for the rest of their lives, despite their neighbors’ persistent belief that Lizzie was an ax murderer. Following her acquittal, Lizzie befriended a renowned actress, Nance O’Neil.
The play, directed here by Dave Zybert, opens in the home of a skittish, worrisome Emma (Sharon Zenz), who receives some unexpected guests: Nance O’Neil (Jackie Fisher) and the rest of her theater troupe, Tom Fuller (Gary Helmers), Annie Beale (Heather Wirtz) and Henry Webb (Dale Fast). They are welcomed in to wait for Lizzie (Julie Douglass), who arrives late and suspects that she was followed by a stranger—not an unusual occurrence in her post-trial days.
This sets off the wild curiosity of her actor friends, who find themselves thrilled by Lizzie’s story, mostly convinced of her innocence and compelled to reenact the events to arrive at a satisfying truth. The details of the crime scene, evidence and court testimony are based in fact, with many questions left unanswered. Did something as banal as a land deal incite Lizzie to murder? Were the Bordens poisoned prior to the murders, and by whom? As the play draws to a chilling close, we’re left wondering whether Lizzie really did do it, or whether it could have been that mysterious stranger.
It is nothing short of heroic that Julie Douglass stepped into the pivotal lead role just one week prior to the show’s opening after the original lead actress, Terri Gray, was hospitalized with viral pneumonia. Although as Lizzie she was often forced to refer to her “diary” for her lines, it was by no means distracting, and her performance was so natural and believable that it took no time at all before I had forgotten that she even held this convenient prop. And her likability, whether intended or not, worked for the story by giving Lizzie added depth and enhancing the mystery.
All of the troupe actors’ performances were enjoyable—a fairly difficult task considering each one played several characters during their reenactments. Fisher, especially, has a wicked sense of humor that makes her character bawdy and fun.
Although the intimate, draught house feeling of the Studio on 4th makes it a great venue for a show like this, its location does not. At critical points in the show, sirens from the fire station across the street blared, and at one point, a helicopter hovered nearby for a good five minutes, all of which diminished the turn-of-the-century mood that the setting and costumes had successfully created.
Nonetheless, the play’s intrigue and the ongoing mystery surrounding Borden make this a great Halloween outing.