Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1384
The play opens on a late Sunday afternoon in the parlor of the Borden house in 1902, in Fall River, Massachusetts. Miss Lizzie enters with tea for the Actress, who protests she doesn't like the tea and toast routine while Lizzie puzzles over the proper way to pour tea. Lizzie worries that Fall River is a little boring for the Actress. She says she is there to see Lizzie. She gives a report about how her rehearsals are going. She reports hearing children in the alley singing a little song about Lizzie killing her parents.
Lizzie asks if she defended her. The Actress reports she closed the window. They put on a record and dance as the Actress tries to figure out if Miss Lizzie looks jowly, a comment made m news reports during the trial. The Actress complains that Lizzie never tells her anything, when Lizzie fails to respond to the question of whether she committed the crane or not.
Lizzie wonders aloud whether part of the Actress's success is due to her connection with an infamous accused murderess such as herself. The Actress bristles at this, but Lizzie says that, ten years after the events, people still talk about her and the crime Lizzie complains that Emma keeps asking, "did you?" The Actress starts to imitate Emma, carrying on both sides of an imaginary conversation with Lizzie's older sister.
The Actress says she wants lo know the truth. Lizzie suggests they play a game in which the Actress will play Miss Lizzie and Lizzie will play Bridget, the maid the family had in 1892.
The action shifts to Lizzie's murder trial that took place ten years before. The Defense questions Lizzie as Bridget, and she describes the Borden family, including the visit of Harry, Mrs. Borden's brother. This recollection dissolves to another Hash-back to the Borden home. Harry has arrived, and it is clear that the purpose of his visit is money, either for himself or his sister, who is Mr. Borden's second wife. Lizzie had Harry thrown out the last time he visited. He wonders what Bridget is doing with bread crusts. She says they are for Lizzie's pigeons, and Harry says Lizzie prefers animals to people. The Actress, now playing Lizzie, appears and Harry slips off to split wood.
After Bridget reports a conversation between Mr. Borden and his brother-in-law. Lizzie calls Harry a stupid bugger, flustering Bridget with her foul language. Lizzie voices her concern that Harry is only visiting to connive more money out of her father. Emma appears, complaining of the noise that has kept her from sleep. Emma indicates she's heard Lizzie's bad language. Emma doesn't want to deal with the reality of the family farm, which is in financial ruin, or Harry's schemes to get more of their father's money. Lizzie tries to make her talk about it.
Mrs. Borden, the girls' stepmother, comes down for breakfast and questions Bridget about Harry's appearance and whether Lizzie knows he's here. She comes to the conclusion that Lizzie is really quite spoiled, There is obvious tension between Mrs. Borden and Lizzie revolving around Mr. Borden's money. Mr. Borden appears and they discuss Lizzie and a widower, Johnny MacLeod, who is interested in her. Her father pressures Emma to talk with Lizzie. She goes off in a huff, unwilling to be the family mediator and communicator.
The scene shifts to Dr. Patrick and Lizzie talking outdoors, where she flirts with him, inviting him to run off with her, although he is married. Harry passes by and tells Lizzie to come in for lunch, even though they have just finished breakfast.
The scene shifts and Bridget and Lizzie talk about the expectation that Lizzie should get married and have a home of her own. Meanwhile Harry reports to Mrs. Borden that Lizzie has been consorting with the doctor. Mrs. Borden and Harry gang up on Mr. Borden. saying he can't control his own daughter. Mr. Borden says he'll talk with her.
The scene returns to the courtroom, and Lizzie recalls how she never was quite good enough as a girl, supposing that she never got at birth that magic formula for being a woman. The Defense returns and questions whether Lizzie could have delivered the ax blows that killed her parents.
The scene switches to a conversation between Borden and Lizzie as he tries to persuade her to see the widower MacLeod. '"He's looking for a housekeeper not a wife." Lizzie contends. Mrs. Borden joins in and they talk of Lizzie leaving the house and the dowry she'll receive if she marries. Mr. Borden slaps Lizzie. Her stepmother reminds her that she is financially dependent on her father and that she can't hope to inherit a third of his estate when he dies.
Harry and Mr. Borden talk, revealing Harry's business He wants the fallow farm put in Mrs. Borden's name and leased to him Harry will conduct horse auctions and have buggy rides on the property, giving Borden twenty percent. What they are unaware of is Lizzie's presence, and she confronts her father Borden's anger erupts and he directs it at the pigeons Lizzie keeps Taking the hatchet Harry has brought in from splitting wood, Borden smashes it into the table. Ax in hand, Borden says he is going to take care of the birds. The act ends back in the present with Lizzie saying she loved the pigeons.
The action returns to Lizzie and the Actress's re-enactment. It is the following day Emma tells Lizzie she is going away for a few days. Lizzie accuses Emma of running away from things. Lizzie underscores the reality—Harry is getting the farm signed over to their stepmother and will be living there. They will be essentially cut out of their father's will, left to subsist on only a small allowance.
The scene returns to the courtroom. The Defense reappears and questions Lizzie about what happened on that day, and she recalls going for a walk, eating pears, coming back, finding her Papa dead, and calling for Bridget.
The scene shifts back to that day. Mrs. Borden comes down for breakfast and soon Mr. Borden joins the table. Harry pops in and gets an invitation to go to town with Borden. Lizzie, knowing they plan to sign papers m town, tries to persuade her father not to go.
The scenes fades to another talk between Dr. Patrick and Lizzie. Lizzie says she could die if she wanted. They walk, and she is going to show him her birds but the cage is empty She asks him whom he would save if he could only save one of two people dying from an accident. Then she asks if he met Attila the Hun and could kill him, would he? He says he would fight in a war but is uncomfortable with this line of questioning She launches into an attack on her stepmother but she doesn't get the support she wants and accuses Patrick of being a coward.
The scene turns to Mrs. Borden and Lizzie, who talks about her father killing her birds with an ax Mrs. Borden is uncomfortable and decides to go upstairs. Lizzie asks her to carry her clean clothes upstairs and put them in her room. Mrs. Borden starts up the steps, and Lizzie follows, describing how she would kill someone, as they exit.
Lizzie comes back with a hatchet concealed in her basket of clothes and appeals to Bridget for help, coaching Bridget to say that someone broke in and killed Mrs. Borden.
The scene changes, and Mr. Borden is home. Lizzie talks about how much she loves him and the ring she once gave him. She encourages him to sleep and when he does, approaches him with the hatchet The stage darkens.
Back in the present, Emma and Lizzie discuss the Actress. Emma considers the relationship "disgraceful." Emma again asks her sister if she did it. Annoyed by her sister's repeated inquiries, Lizzie threatens Emma with "something sharp." If she is guilty, Lizzie states, then Emma is guilty as well because Emma raised her and taught her everything. The play ends with the Actress deciding Lizzie did commit the murders. Lizzie, however, points her finger at the Actress and the audience.