Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Murder Americana -
The People vs. Lizzie Borden

Circle Theatre, a storefront community theatre located in Forest Park, Illinois (about fifteen minutes from the Loop), has always prided itself on the premise of being "an artist-based company whose mission is to produce exciting and interactive theatre accessible to the widely diversified suburban and city audience." This season began with a striking production of Kopit's rarely-produced Nine, the world premiere of British playwright Stephen Clark's Stripped, and an ambitious production of The Lisbon Traviata. Their closing show, the world premiere of Murder Americana - The People vs. Lizzie Borden, shows why this group is far and above the usual community theatre standards.

Murder Americana - The People vs. Lizzie Borden, written by Harry McEwan (whose previous credits include Satan's School for Girls and Mostly-Dyed Blonde, produced at Eight-Eights in New York City), is an attempt to reconstruct the infamous Lizzie Borden axe murderess story and trial that took place in 1893. Taking a cue from the gruesome nursery rhyme "Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks," this production dramatizes the events leading up to the trial, the conflict produced in the trial, and Borden's aftermath.

Historical dramas that involve famous/infamous people and events have always taken different forms. For example, Lawrence and Lee tried to re-create the Scopes Monkey Trial in a literal format in Inherit the Wind; in The Crucible, Arthur Miller used the Salem Witchcraft Trials as a background to echo McCarthyism in the United States. Director Ty Perry has chosen yet a different format to tell the story of Lizzie Borden and the events that unfolded in Fall River, Massachusetts, in November, 1893.

The first act, "Murder and Inquest," intersperses scenes leading up to the trial from Lizzie's past blended with her solitary existence which followed the trial. The second act, "Trial and Verdict," deals with the real events of the trial as well as a purging of Lizzie's mind as she reflects on the events and the meaning to her own personal life.

All of this takes place on a set created by Michael Simmons with multi-level platforms and curtained flats which allow the characters to enter and exit quickly as the scenes move throughout the time period narrated in the play. This arrangement allows the company to play a variety of roles in order to tell the events that occurred during that fateful summer. Each episode leads the audience into considering a different piece of the puzzle. The program notes that Murder Americana ..., "while ostensibly a work of fiction, was inspired primarily by actual events, testimonies and persons ..."

This production does a magnificent job of re-creating the events in a very simplistic style. The Borden mansion, Maplecroft, is merely produced by a simple chair and the interplay of the main characters; the courtroom is likewise represented by two trunks turned upright. Period costumes and a variety of musical interludes set the viewer into the period.

Though this non-linear re-creation of events often becomes repetitious (with the dialogue of one vignette leading into the next lapse in time or characters jumping from one time frame to another), director Perry has kept his small ensemble of actors and actresses in a strong-driving pace that keeps the viewer intrigued as to what actually happened in this infamous segment of American history. Borden was eventually acquitted from the heinous act of butchering her father and step-mother, but there never has never been a clear-cut conclusion as to what happened on that fateful morning in 1892.

Perry's company of players are to be commended for playing a variety of roles that firmly establish their connection with the Borden story. Although appearing on stage for only a few minutes, each player etches a dominant impression that establishes links to the event.

Ann Followill, playing the leading role of Lizzie Borden, is onstage during most of the play's action. She has a strong command of the role, which is sometimes part Medea and part Lady Macbeth. Though she lacks a certain vulnerability and softness at times (is Lizzie really the murderess?) she thoroughly dramatizes Lizzie's anguish as being the primary culprit of the murders. Martin Halacy, playing the dual role of Lizzie's father and Lizzie's defense attorney is able to capture both roles with strong resonance. Robin M. Hughes must be singled out for her role as Lizzie's passive sister, Emma Borden. Here is an actress who can convey emotional strain and pain with a simple movement or facial gesture. The rest of the ensemble, playing a variety of roles, re-create the background which establishes the focal point of the story: Is Lizzie guilty or innocent?

Circle Theatre must be commended for producing such an ambitious project. With some careful editing (the production is almost three hours long), this could be a wonderful theatrical piece of Americana. Credit also must be given to Circle's dramaturg, Karen Pertruska, who has assembled a wonderful collection of historical photographs of headlines involving the trial and other events which are displayed in the lobby.

Murder Americana - The People vs. Lizzie Borden, presented by Circle Theatre runs through August 4th. Circle Theatre is located at 7300 W. Madison in Forest Park, Il. For tickets and further information, call (708)-771-0700 or visit

Circle Theatre's next production will be The Wild Party, beginning September 11th.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area

-- Charles

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