nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 11, 2010
David Foley's marvelous new play, Nance O'Neil, tells one of those stories that you can only believe it if you know it really happened. There's grand speculative fiction in this work to be sure, but the broad outlines of the tale told here—one that I think few of us are familiar with—are firmly on the record. This is the kind of historical drama that pulls you right into its situation and period and leaves you utterly satisfied yet hungry to know still more about its engrossing and provocative subjects.
Those subjects are the title character, a now-obscure actress who was a bright star of the American stage and silent screen for about the first third of the last century, and one Lizbeth Borden, a lonely New England eccentric spinster who had become indelibly notorious about a dozen years before the events of this play when she was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in their Fall River, Massachusetts home. Lizzie, as she was then known, was acquitted, but not in the minds of those who had and would absorb her legend. When we meet her, Lizbeth has reinvented herself—hence the more formal version of her Christian name—and seems to have put her demons as far behind her as possible. Indeed, our first glimpse of Lizbeth is in the parlor of the home she shares with her elder sister Emma. She's just witnessed an impromptu performance by Nance, and her adoration and enthusiasm is that of a giddy girl:
Oh brava! Brava! I was carried away! I really was back at the Colonial Theatre! No! No! I was in Judea! Two thousand years ago! That's how good it was! I was carried clean away!
We are taken with this Lizbeth immediately, and understand why Nance is, too. It's a symbiotic more than a sexual attraction (though the latter may develop later on): Lizbeth adores Nance's glamour and talent and Nance, as who would not, is bowled over by her fan's attention and generosity. Does Nance believe Lizbeth was once a cold-blooded murderess? Emphatically not, she tells her manager, McKee Rankin; she certainly isn't going to try to find out.
And so the story of Nance O'Neil unfolds, charting the treacherous waters of need, vanity, opportunism, manipulation, deception, fear, and love. Foley gives us a pair of full-bodied, complex, unpredictable women in his leads, and a pair of supporting characters just as rich and intriguing in Rankin, who may or may not be working in Nance's best interest after more than a decade nurturing and promoting her, and in Emma, the stolid, dour, intractably sad protector of her sister's good name (and secrets?).
What I love about the play is how riveting it is to watch, and how entirely plausible all of its twists and turns feel. Foley doesn't claim to have any special knowledge about what really happened in the Borden house on that hot summer night in 1892, or even during the couple of years when the events in his play occur (1904-5). But he's as reliable a guide as I can imagine into the hearts of the strong-willed women at his play's center. Freedom is what they crave, in a time when such a thing was nearly inconceivable for a "proper woman" to achieve: Ibsen's Hedda—a role much beloved by Nance O'Neil—was still very much a cause for scandal and controversy. He's also managed to build a drama that's as suspenseful as a Lizzie Borden yarn ought to be, without sensationalism. And unlike most manifestations of the Borden legend nowadays, Nance O'Neil takes its subject seriously; there isn't a shred of irony or camp to be found, thankfully.
Gary Shrader's production for Blue Coyote Theater Group feels near perfect. Emily Inglis's set consists of several elegant groupings of furniture that looks suitably expensive and antique, on which the many scenes play out seamlessly. I particularly liked the picture frames hung around the walls—all empty, each providing a blank canvas for our imaginations to begin filling in the details of each locale. Christopher Weston's lighting and Kyle Ancowitz's sound design feel entirely appropriate. Christi Coufal's costume choices are sometimes bold, but then so are the women wearing them.
The four-member cast is anchored by Frank Anderson as Rankin and Jane Titus as Emma, both splendidly reliable actors who carefully construct fully realized characters by paying attention to the details; Titus is particularly unforgettable in a climactic moment in Act Two that I otherwise will say nothing about. Jonna McElrath as Lizbeth has palpable chemistry with Titus's Emma—they really feel like sisters—and brings layers and layers of complication to the play's fascinating and enigmatic center. In the title role, Rachel Brown is graceful and assured; I'm not sure I absolutely believed her as a star of the first rank, but I suspect that will come with time as she inhabits Nance more completely.
Nance O'Neil represents New York's indie theater at its best: original, provocative, intimate, and entirely engaging. This play deserves a long and healthy life after this world premiere at Access Theatre. It is unquestionably one of the highlights of the new season.