ARSENIC & OLD LACE was written in 1939 by American playwright Joseph Kesselring and revolves around the Brewster family – a composed family of insane (but funny) homicidal maniacs. The hero, Mortimer Brewster (played by Eddy Herring), is a theater critic who must deal with his crazy, family and the local police in Brooklyn, New York, as he debates whether to go through with his recent promise to marry the woman he loves, Elaine Harper (played by Laura Merchant), who lives next door and is the daughter of the local minister. His family includes two spinster aunts (played by Mary Tiner and Johnna Leigh) who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and "just a pinch" of cyanide; a brother (played by Doug Smetzer) who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt and digs locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar of the Brewster home (which then serve as graves for the aunts' victims); and a murderous brother, Jonathan (played by Chris Berthelot) who has received plastic surgery performed by an alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (played by Audie Preston) to conceal his identity, and now looks like horror-film actor Boris Karloff.
In researching this play, I learned this ‘fun-fact’ - ARSENIC AND OLD LACE was inspired by a serial killer who lived in Windsor, CT – the infamous Amy Duggan Archer Galligan, who poisoned at least five elderly gentlemen including her second husband (and up to 58 more) in her Prospect Street Archer Home for The Elderly and Infirm. The Hartford Courant spilled the beans on Sister, as she was called, in 1916. She was tried, convicted, sentenced to death, retried, found insane, and sent to the asylum in Middletown, CT, where she died in 1962.
Kesselring’s script is enjoyable, even after all these years, and offers good characters in a plot development with various twists and turns but after two intermissions you wind-up with a very predictable ending. Still, I enjoyed the 2+ hours I spent watching the Allen’s Community Theatre production. It reminded me of why I watch the Hallmark Channel during this time of year – enjoyable and predictable is not a bad thing for a rainy afternoon.
The two spinster aunts, Abby and Martha, who cringe at the idea of telling a lie but believe dragging lonely old men to death’s door is “mercy” are well played by Tiner and Leigh. Their enthusiasm is contagious. As I watched Abby prance back and forth across the stage I could feel her delight and vitality – see seemed to be on her toes throughout the entire production.
Eddy Herring portrayal of Mortimer reflects smooth timing as he realizes his loving, sweet, mild-mannered aunts are really deadly serial killers with at least twelve bodies buried in the basement of their home. Merchant who plays his girlfriend Elaine is oblivious to the murderous swirl that is going on around her. In watching their chemistry together, I wasn’t entirely convinced they loved each other and wanted to get married.
I loved watching Smetzer as Teddy Roosevelt and his performance gets a "bully" rating indeed. Whether charging up the stairs to San Juan, blasting his bugle to announce a cabinet meeting, or eagerly exiting off to Panama I was thoroughly entertained every time he entered (and for that matter, exited) the stage.
My shout-out for this show has to go to Chris Berthelot who does a really-really-creepy-good performance playing the revolting Jonathan Brewster. Berthelot’s interpretation of the mirthless homicidal, bloodthirsty villain is spot on. I found myself hating him then realizing it was because he was just that good in his role – he made me hate him throughout the play, but I also became engrossed in watching and waiting to see what he would do next. Berthelot performance was a great example of what it means to have ‘stage presence’.
Audie Preston as Dr. Einstein gave the audience a fun performance as the alcoholic doctor who can’t sever ties with the evil Jonathan until he completes his plastic surgery challenge and ensures Jonathan is no longer referred to as ‘Boris Karloff’.
Jonathan Osborne is very entertaining as Officer O’Hara - a police officer with aspirations to be a playwright. His energy and insistence in working with Mortimer on his script is very funny.
Rounding out the cast are the inept police officers who try to protect the Brewster ladies played by Mark Inman and Chris Wooley; the next-door neighbor Mrs. Harper and Happy Dale's Ms. Witherspoon - both played by Eileen Ross; and Mr. Gibbs and Lt Rooney both played by Russell Sims.
The entire three-act play takes place in Brooklyn in the Brewster home which is a single room of minimal set design. Costumes were kept simple and the Brewster sisters appeared younger than I expected – graying hair or wigs might have added to their appearance, and the police officers may have been more appropriate if dressed in NYC uniforms vs shirts and slacks. Accents were a varied range of nationality, locality, and social class as characters were introduced – moving from Brophy’s Brooklyn to Martha’s Southern to Einstein’s German.
Overall the company all offer very charming performances, individually and as an ensemble.
ALLEN’S COMMUNITY THEATER (ACT) has just invested in new theater seating for the comfort of their patrons and they offer concessions by donation (including wine and beer). So, come out and drop a $20 in the donation jar and support this little theater in the heart of Allen, Texas.