Lizzie Borden Gets the ANTIC Treatment
Bart Sullivan, 02-02-2019

Shelby Carlisle, as Lizzie Borden, a possible culprit of the Borden murders.
Mark Brown
In the 1890s, a skipping-rope rhyme immortalized the case of Lizzie Borden, who was tried, and later acquitted, for the murder of her father and step-mother, Andrew and Abby Borden. The rhyme, which goes “Lizzie Borden took an axe/ and gave her mother forty whacks./ When she saw what she had done/ she gave her father forty-one,” has been known throughout the generations because, in spite of Lizzie's acquittal, many still suspected she still committed the crime. Ultimately, there is no definitive story of what have come to be known as “the Lizzie Borden murders.” Nevertheless, Actors–N–Theatre in Cuyahoga Falls (ANTIC) put on their own production of Tim Kelly’s slightly unresearched Lizzie Borden of Fall River in November to examine these events.

Fall River shows the events leading up to the Bordens’ murder, introducing family members and townsfolk along the way. Some characters explain the problems they had with Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, giving their own motives for ending his life. These include Mr. Sousa the handyman, Bridget Sullivan the housekeeper, and a fictitious character Kelly created for his story, Borden’s sister-in-law, “Aunt Vinnie.” While the story audiences may recall points to Lizzie as the murderer, these characters provide doubt that she committed the crime, as well as motive for anyone in the cast to have wished either Andrew or Abby dead. Nevertheless, after the Bordens are murdered in a dark scene that obscures the actual murders just before the play’s intermission, Lizzie is tried and acquitted, but her wild actions around town and around her family—to say nothing of her sister Emma’s lies to the press—make characters question the verdict.

Although Lizzie Borden of Fall River includes the historical record of the Lizzie Borden trial from the newspapers of the time, the rest of the play seems unfortunately to favor suspense over fact. While this certainly isn’t the fault of the cast—most of whom fell into their parts seamlessly—the script itself is flawed. Director and Lizzie Borden researcher Mark Brown said “I chose this show because of the name and the meaning to people, even though the story was not 100% accurate. It is the only Lizzie Borden script available to produce.” Given Brown’s knowledge of the case, and despite the historical issues in the story, he says that the layout allowed him to present the story he wanted. “I have extensive knowledge of the case, having done a lot of research. I do not believe Lizzie committed the murders,” Brown said. “It seems too extreme for killing Andrew, even though I believe there was hatred toward Abby.” Not showing the murder occur, Brown was able to present a story without a definitive answer, yet keep the idea of Lizzie as the killer as a possibility.

Aside from the unfortunate writing, even impressive acting faltered into corny and overproduced. Shelby Carlisle’s monologue as Lizzie, crooning about Susan B. Anthony and women’s rights (ideas Borden would have been too young to have inherited from her birth mother, Sarah, before her death), goes over the top, followed soon after by the murder. Aside from moments like these, however, the show progressed effectively, trailing one event to the next, with each subsequent clue for other killers drawing the story in multiple directions.

Lizzie Borden of Fall River is Brown’s fifth directorial effort, though he has acted in 40 shows for ANTIC and other companies. ANTIC was founded in 1983, the brainchild of CFHS drama students wishing to extend their theatre experience. Today, the Newell Theatre at the Quirk Cultural Center is ANTIC’s current home, where a volunteer board of trustees and participants donate their time to shows. Brown states that “ANTIC is a family who welcomes newcomers and returning veterans to become part of our theater family.” ANTIC’s next show will be held in March 2019, a multi-generational show taking on a classic fairy tale.

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