SOLANA BEACH — "Didja do it, Lizzie? Didja?" That's the question that follows the story of Lizzie Borden, an ordinary young woman from Fall River, Mass., who was accused, in the otherwise quiet summer of 1892, of hacking her father and stepmother to death with an ax.
She was acquitted but suspicion lingered on. There were no other suspects.
At the start of Sharon Pollock's "Blood Relations," now playing at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, you may wonder how Lizzie could possibly do such a thing. Before the end of the first act, you will wonder how she could possibly not. By the end of the play, you will find this is no mere thriller. The conclusion is worthy, if not borrowed with a twist, from "The Brothers Karamazov."
"Blood Relations" is that rare show that makes you think and feel and care and examine your soul for the answer to the question posed by those in the play who supposedly know Lizzie best: "Didja do it, Lizzie? Didja?"
"Blood Relations" opens in 1902, 10 years after the murders. A young, attractive actress is visiting Lizzie (Mickey Mullany), whose jealous and protective demeanor suggests that of the lover. The actress (Laura Jaeckel) is a high-spirited person, easy to laugh or lose her temper, while Lizzie is a tightly lidded jar--from her pinched bun with tight red ringlets framing her forehead to her stiff and suffocating, old-fashioned dress. The jar is hot, but how hot we will not know unless it explodes.
The actress does not know the truth of that fateful summer, but would like to. She pouts at Lizzie for giving her the background, but hedging at the answer. So Lizzie proposes a game. She will give the actress a chance to play Lizzie, to reenact the events leading up to the murders. Then the actress will answer the question for herself.
At this point, Pollock summons the surreal. Mr. Borden, Mrs. Borden, Lizzie's sister, until this point sitting silently like ghosts on the sidelines, step into their lives of 10 years earlier as if they had never been interrupted. Lizzie, herself, plays the Bordens' Irish maid, Bridget. So seamlessly does this world emerge that the actress is virtually startled into her part as Lizzie. She approaches it at first as if afraid. Then she moves with gusto, only to find that the 10-year gap might as well be 90; it is not so easy to fit her 20th-Century tendency to speak her mind into the part of a 19th-Century woman of 32, living at home and with limited options.
Her father and stepmother want her to marry a widower with three children--anything to get her out of the house. She, too, wants out, but she doesn't want to become what she sees as a glorified housekeeper; she wants a room of her own. Why does marriage have to be the only way out? "I could keep your books for you, Papa," she says. The answer is "No."
As the actress comes to more fully appreciate the narrow confines of her part, we see Bridget, standing behind her, binding the actress' loose hair into a bun; the actress surrenders her dangling earrings for Lizzie's red post ones. Slowly, she tries to squeeze into a life that is too small for her.
The direction, by Martin Katz, is deft. It needs to be to keep the past and present moving.
Much is required from the actors, and for the most part they deliver with a strength that surprises, given, on the whole, their relative inexperience.
Mullany, new to the North Coast Repertory--although not to San Diego theater (she has appeared at the Rep, the Bowery and the Gaslamp)--carries the show as Lizzie/Bridget, moving effortlessly from one part to another without the benefit of a prop or costume change and yet maintaining a single, intense thread that links the two parts together throughout.
Part of Jaeckel's challenge as actress/Lizzie is to avoid what could be a monotonic interpretation of Lizzie; she does this admirably, showing us Lizzie's different colors, her tender side and her loving side, her wit as well as her anger.
Solid support is provided by Jim Diehm as Mr. Borden and Devlin as his forceful wife who is, bit by bit, getting him to sign over more of his possessions to her and her brother, Harry, played by Ken Parratt with self-righteous believability.
Susan Herder, as Lizzie's sister, Emma, is the other side of Lizzie's coin: the good little girl determined to be good, even if it kills her. The only weak link in the chain is Mark Robertson as Dr. Patrick, Lizzie's married admirer. He seems not quite secure and rakish enough for the doctor's part; he is far more confident and convincing in his second role as the defense attorney, who punctuates the action with a cross-examination from the theater aisle.
The staging, by Loren Schreiber, is appropriate. Like Clark Mires' costumes, it provides everything it needs to create a mood, and not an extra item that might distract. Similarly, the lighting by Matthew O. O'Donnell is noticeable when it needs to be but is otherwise effectively unobtrusive.
In fact, the very message of the play, like the staging, the scenery and lighting, is not pushed on the audience in any way. It may provoke you to think, for example, if the appeal of the Borden story is, in part, wishful thinking. Many, after all, "live lives of quiet desperation."
The beauty of "Blood Relations" is that it is not a polemic. It leads you to the water, but does not force you to drink. That is something you decide for yourself.
"BLOOD RELATIONS" By Sharon Pollock. Directed by Martin Katz. Scenic design by Loren Schreiber. Lighting by Matthew O. O'Donnell. Costumes by Clark Mires. Technical director is Leslee Baren. With Devlin, Jim Diehm, Susan Herder, Laura Jaeckel, Mickey Mullany, Ken Parratt and Mark Robertson. Plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through March 1. North Coast Repertory Theatre, 971 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.