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A CurtainUp Review
Nance O’Neil

This afternoon we drove to Newport in her car and walked along the Cliff Walk. It was horrible. People stopped and pointed. Said things. Not whispered. Said them aloud. As if she couldn’t hear. And she just stood it. Walked along head high, determined not to let it touch her. I’d never seen such courage .— Nance O’Neil
Rachel Brown as Nance O'Neil
Ask anyone above a certain age (much of our folklore is lost to out youth) about Lizzie Borden and you’ll be told all about the Fall River, Massachusetts spinster who axed her father and stepmother to death one scorching hot day in August. But how many people know what happened to that young lady and her sister Emma after she was acquitted by a jury but never rehabilitated in the eyes of the general populace?

David Foley answers this question with a gripping new play based on the relationship Lizzie (now renamed Lizbeth) formed with actress Nance O’Neil in 1905, twelve years after the murders. Presented by Blue Coyote Group, Nance O’Neil is directed by founding member Gary Shrader, who makes this story as emotionally charged and occasionally as frightening as an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

Nance O’Neil is based on historical fact, but in the story of Lizzie Borden, fact is generously mixed with speculation. Were O’Neil and Borden lovers as well as friends? Was O’Neil genuinely fond of Borden or was the profligate and sometimes penniless actress using the wealthy but lonely and isolated spinster? And, of course, there is always the question that hovered over the rest of Borden’s life — did she do it, and if she didn’t, who did?

Jonna McElrath plays the effervescent Lizbeth/Lizzie, desperately trying to free herself from the domination of her tight-lipped, tight-fisted sister Emma (Jane Titus). She seems perpetually on the verge of bursting out of her push-up bra and tight-fitting bodice as she scurries across the stage seeking Nance’s favor. McElrath’s performance is a fine mixture of desperation, determination, vulnerability and stoicism.

Rachel Brown, as Nance O’Neil, has the difficult task of playing a woman who may or may not have been the villain in the story. As a woman who would like to be free of the constrictions her sex is subject to, she regards Lizzie as a proto-feminist, someone who has "struck a blow for freedom" by standing up in court and defending herself. Nance’s mentor, McKee Rankin (Frank Anderson), sees the situation differently.

Anderson as Neil’s cynical former lover makes his character so engaging and complex he comes close to stealing the show. Clearly, the young actress is his meal ticket, but it is equally certain that he is still in love with her. And it is most certainly this jaundiced impresario who best understands Lizzie, whether or not she actually committed the murders.

Foley cannot resist the temptation of throwing into his play at least one alternate theory of who murdered the Bordens, then quickly casting doubt on this theory. But Nance O’Neil is not really about the murders; it is about what the crime does to the survivors. It is also a compelling study of what life was like for women in the early 20th century.

But most of all, Nance O’Neil is about human beings, with all their frailties, trying to comfort and make contact with one another. This contact is often complicated by unwanted past histories and impossible expectations. In this regard, the characters in the drama that surround Lizzie Borden are not much different from the rest of humanity – minus the hatchet.

Nance O’Neil
By David Foley
Directed by Gary Shrader
Cast: Rachel Brown (Nance O’Neil), Jonna McElrath (Lizbeth Borden), Frank Anderson (McKee Rankin), Jane Titus (Emma Borden)
Set: Emily Inglis
Lights- Christopher Weston
Costumes: Christi Coufal
Graphics: Bruce Goldstone
Sound: Kyle Ancowitz
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission
Access Theater, 380 Broadway
From 9/9/10; opening 9/15/10; closing 10/9/10
Wednesday thru Saturday at 8pm
Tickets: $25 (212) 868-4444 or
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Sept. 10, 2010
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