Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Fascinating Production of
The Fall River Axe Murders

Also see Richard's review of Maid

The aggressive Word for Word Company is currently presenting Angela Carter's short story on the legendary axe-wielding Lizzie Borden. The Fall River Axe Murders; Literature in Performance is being presented at the Magic Theatre by an amazing cast composed of the most talented actresses in the Bay Area. The company presents works of literature precisely as written. There is no personal intervention into the words as written by Ms. Carter. The cast of nine women and two men mesmerizes the audience for 80 minutes with the trials and tribulations of Lizzie Borden just before the famous murders.

I confess I have always been fascinated by Ms. Lizzie Borden. I have read many articles on the woman and I enjoyed working on a television production back in 1975 called The Legend of Lizzie Borden starring Elizabeth Montgomery. The question has always been, "Did she or didn't she murder her parents?" It is still an unsolved mystery since she was acquitted of the crime.

The Word for Word production explores what happened just before the famous murders. Carter slices open the scene of the crime, and the language cuts like a knife. This production assumes that Lizzie killed her father and stepmother. Most of the action takes place during the early morning hours in Falls River just before the killing. Much is made of the very hot and humid day where "clothes cling to the body like glue."

The production opens on the three sided stage where nine women come out, ghostlike, in period costumes and say in monotone voices the famous nursery rhyme "Lizzie Borden took an ax/And gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her father 41." Ms. Carter gives many details on the house which seems to have no charm, the heat that is oppressive, the disgusting odor of unwashed bodies and the general atmosphere of the small Massachusetts town. We get character studies of each member of the Borden family, including the father who prizes money over everything but has incestuous feelings toward Lizzie, the voracious and useless stepmother, the spinster sister and the watchful Irish maid. The actual murder is not presented and the play ends just before that deed is committed.

The ensemble is superb, with Stephanie Hunt giving a striking performance as Lizzie Borden. Her flare-up of rage is frightening. Ms. Hunt remarkably displays the pent-up emotions of this multilayered character. John Balma is outstanding as the miserly father who has a great affection for his daughter. The actor has one of the best theater voices that I have heard this year and has the Yankee accent down perfectly. Amy Kossow comically portrays the vain and robust stepmother while Jeri Lynn Cohen gives a wonderful performance as the uptight older spinster sister of Lizzie. Sheila Balter is also first rate as the observant Irish servant.

Director Amy Freed keeps the play moving rapidly. The director and cast personify the author's narratives with brilliantly sketched scenes.

The Fall River Axe Murders plays thru September 7th at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-437-6775 or visit

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

Privacy Policy