The time is Sunday afternoon in late fall in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1902. A production note specifies that there ought not to be divisions of the script into scenes using blackouts, and that, with the exception of "The Actress" who plays Lizzie Borden, and "Miss Lizzie," who plays Bridget, the Irish maid, all of the characters will be imaginary figments for the flashback. A woman at center stage tells the audience that the play that is about to take place contradicts the accusation of murder against her.
Miss Lizzie enters with tea service and the Actress watches her, eating chocolate and looking at her script. The Actress asks Lizzie if it is more proper to put the cream or the tea in the cup first. Lizzie says she doesn't know, and gives the Actress some sugar as requested. Abruptly, the Actress says that she hates tea, even though Miss Lizzie insists that she drinks it every Sunday.
The Actress wants to ask Miss Lizzie's sister which tea ritual she thinks is proper, since her sister will not talk to her. The Actress wants to pour some sherry, but Lizzie tells her not to. Miss Lizzie suggests that they could have met in Boston, but the Actress says she likes it there. It becomes clear that they are in a romantic relationship and they remember how the Actress comes down from Boston to see her.
The Actress tells Lizzie that she heard some children singing a song about Lizzie while skipping rope, about how she killed both her parents with an axe, hitting her mother 40 times and her father 41. "Did you tell them I was acquitted?" Lizzie says. The Actress goes to the gramophone and puts on Scott Joplin. They dance, as the Actress says that people are talking about how Lizzie has jowls. Suddenly, the Actress asks Lizzie bluntly if she killed her parents or not and lights a cigarette, even though Lizzie hates it. Lizzie refuses to answer her, and suggests that the Actress owes some of her career success to her association with her.
Lizzie tells the Actress that she reminds her of her sister, who sounds psychologically disturbed and has been asking Lizzie if she killed their parents for 10 years. Lizzie tells the Actress, "You look like me, or how I think I look, or how I ought to look...sometimes you think like me...do you feel that?" The Actress suggests that Lizzie enjoys how fascinated people are with the ambiguity of her situation, before calling her a "pretentious small-town spinster." She then asks Lizzie to tell the story of the night again.
They decide that they will play a game in which the Actress plays Lizzie and Lizzie plays Bridget O'Sullivan, the Irish maid who was in the house on the day of the murders. We hear the voice of The Defense speaking to Lizzie, who impersonates Bridget, telling them that she has been in Fall River for five years and that Mr. Borden was a "tightwad" and Mrs. was a nag. Visions of the past enter, as "Bridget" suggests that on that weekend, in addition to the Borden family, Mr. Wingate, Mr. Borden's brother, was staying the night. Wingate grabs Bridget's rear end. He tries to kiss her and she pours water on her head.
Bridget refers to him as a gentleman farmer and he says he loves her Irish temper. Bridget refers to the fact that the last time Wingate visited, Lizzie was not too happy to sign the rent from the mill house over to Wingate's sister. Wingate sees a basket of crusts, and Bridget tells him they are for Lizzie's birds, pet pigeons she is raising in the shed. The Actress now assumes the identity of Lizzie and enters to see if the coffee is ready.
Wingate gets up to split some kindling in the back. When they are left alone, Bridget discusses the fact that the last time Wingate was there, Mr. Borden compared women to horses. Lizzie makes jokes at her parents' expense, and we learn that Mrs. Borden is actually her stepmother, married to her father for 27 years. Emma enters on the stairs and complains that Lizzie has been loud.
The play tells the true story of Lizzie Borden, a woman who, in the beginning of the 20th century, infamously murdered both of her parents. Lizzie Borden has become something of a cult figure, a symbol of Oedipal psychotic rage at the level of Greek tragedy. If one is familiar with the story of Lizzie Borden before encountering this play, one knows that it will be an intense and bloody affair, or at least examine the circumstances surrounding this grisly event.
Playwright Sharon Pollock deconstructs many elements that we are accustomed to in drama to complicate the story. This is not a realistic play with blackouts, but one in which imaginings and visions and figments of the past occupy the playing space. Additionally, Lizzie plays a maid named Bridget in a kind of perverse game. Another character, known only as "The Actress," "plays" Lizzie Borden in the game. These theatrical and complicating elements of the play suggest that Pollock's play will look at the discrepancies and complications of the case, rather than simply the events as reported by the law and the media at the time.
This casting sleight-of-hand becomes even more complex when we realize that the Actress is Lizzie Borden's lover whom she took up with after the alleged murder of her parents. Lizzie says to her, "I know what you're doing. You're soaking up the ambiance," and the Actress replies, "Nonsense, Lizzie. I come to see you." It is here that we realize that the relationship is a lesbian relationship, that the play-acting they are going to be doing will be a kind of game for them, a way of recreating the past, with Lizzie playing her own maid and the Actress playing Lizzie.
Lizzie's relationship to the Actress is complicated. The Actress wants to know more about Lizzie's alleged crime, but Lizzie gives no indications about her involvement in her parents' death. Instead, she responds by suggesting that their association has only improved the Actress's career. Their entanglement is an unhealthy and manipulative one, as much driven by intrigue and secrets as it is by manipulation and power hunger. Furthermore, the Actress'a profession turns her into a shapeshifting figure, someone who can inhabit different identities, which only adds to the confusion of their relationship and the question of Lizzie's innocence.
As Lizzie and the Actress assume their roles in the reenactment of that fatal day, the play takes on a more specifically feminist bent. We begin to see that Lizzie is a young woman who has no financial control over her life. Her Uncle Wingate and her father regularly conspire to take money away from her, and she and Bridget discuss the fact that her father sees women as similar to horses and in need of reining in whenever possible. Bridget is Lizzie's only confidant and accomplice in their highly oppressive and misogynistic household, and Pollock shows us the frustrations of Lizzie's domestic situation.