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On the surface, "Blood Relations" seems a clever re-enactment of the infamous 1892 Fall River, Mass., ax murders.

These bloody deeds so appalled and fascinated America that the simple bit of doggerel that begins, "Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother 40 whacks," quickly entered our folklore and is still there 111 years later.

The evidence pointed enticingly to the strong-minded, daringly independent 34-year-old Lizzie as the killer of her father, Andrew Borden, and her stepmother, Abby, but the all-male jury saw the benign-seeming spinster as incapable of so horrendous an act. Even though she was acquitted, public opinion held Lizzie guilty, and she spent the rest of her life virtually ostracized.

One of Lizzie's few remaining friends was a Boston actress Nance O'Neil. Although the word could not be even whispered in those Victorian days, theirs was presumed to be a lesbian relationship. This is playwright Sharon Pollock's springboard into the nightmare of straightlaced servitude, which was the lot of most women in that male-dominated society.

During a visit to Fall River, Nance, generically called the Actress in the play, bores in on Lizzie, demanding to know if she really did it. In response, Lizzie suggests that they re-enact the day of the murders by playing a game in which the Actress plays the role of Lizzie, who, in turn, plays the maid Bridget, the only other person in the house during the murders.

Despite frequent flashbacks and flash-forwards, director Eda Holmes manages to keep the switching identities quite clear, and one is able to concentrate on the larger message: the appalling conditions under which the average woman lived.

Evidence piles up. Stepmother Abby has obviously settled for a loveless marriage to Andrew and is trying to force Lizzie, whose spirited independence she detests, into a similar marriage. Down deep, there is strong affection between Lizzie and her father. A prisoner in her father's home because of lack of independent means, Lizzie still maintains a sense of family continuity.

But Abby's two-faced brother Harry is about to con Andrew into signing family property over to Abby to prevent Lizzie from inheriting it. Andrew insists that Lizzie will be taken care of in his will with a stipend allowing her to remain in the family home, but only by paternal dispensation. And in a final breach with Lizzie, her stolid father decapitates Lizzie's pet pigeons over a trifling matter.

As these emotional crises are acted out, it becomes apparent that the play's thrust is not so much concerned with Lizzie's guilt or innocence, but with the conviction that everyone has a breaking point in the face of insuperable stress and oppression.

As the Actress, Laurie Paton gets progressively more involved in her role-reversal as Lizzie and eventually reaches a psychotic peak in which we're not sure whether she has achieved total empathy for Lizzie or has unlocked some repressed secret in her own soul. It's an extraordinary performance.

Jane Perry as Lizzie/Bridget seems to be taking a vacation from Lizzie's real tortured life by playing Bridget and watching the Actress become embroiled in emotions she has all too fully experienced. There's a restraint here that seems surprising at first, but logical on afterthought.

Michael Ball is very strong and maddeningly stolid as the father. But his softer side is winning enough that it leaves a disconnect between his projected character and his horrendous fate. Nora McLellan as Abby, however, is blindly selfish and sufficiently hateful in her jealousy of Lizzie that her being dispatched seems a good riddance.

The set by William Schmuck is a masterpiece of Victorian detail crammed into the Royal George Theatre's small stage, but the major credit goes to Holmes, whose stage direction generates an edge-of-the-seat tension that is reined in just when you feel it is going to become excessive.

Did Lizzie do it? The evidence in Pollock's play says yes, but the concluding dialogue between the Actress and Lizzie injects an unexpected reverse twist of ambiguity that prevents positive conclusions and will keep you wondering for days.


* * * 1/2

WHAT: "Blood Relations", psychodrama by Sharon Pollock

When: Through Nov. 30

Where : Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival

Niagara -on-the-Lake, Ont.

Tickets: $30 to $77 (Canadian funds)

Info: (800) 511-SHAW

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