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Walnuts are falling from the trees, and soon chestnuts will be roasting on open fires. But nuts already abound in a spiffy production of that well-seasoned dramatic chestnut Arsenic and Old Lace, harvested by the Resident Ensemble Players. The REP—resident in Newark at the University of Delaware’s Thompson Theatre—is noted for its actors’ excellence and its production values, and this show is no exception. It was a treat to spend an evening with them in 1941 Brooklyn.
The drama begins
As the play opens, the hospitable Brewster spinsters—sisters Martha and Abby (Kathleen Pirkl Tague and Elizabeth Heflin)—gossip with Reverend Dr. Harper (Hassan El-Amin), coming from his next-door rectory for afternoon tea. Jaded theatre critic Mortimer (Mic Matarrese) stops at the family home to visit his aunts, who worry about his exposure to the evils of Broadway but are comforted by the fact that “Mortimer hates the theater.” He’s calling for Elain (Erin Partin), the minister’s lively daughter, to squire her to the latest show to fall under his acid pen.
Mortimer’s brother Teddy (Lee E. Ernst), who’s convinced he’s President Roosevelt storming San Juan Hill, is warmly greeted by regular visitors, including the local beat cops. But when Mortimer opens a window seat and discovers a body, he learns to his horror that his seemingly sweet old aunts (lauded for their charity) have one nasty habit: they gleefully admit to poisoning lonely old men (“elderberry wine with arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide") to help them to “a better life,” and a dozen of their “gentlemen” are buried in the basement.
As Mortimer tries to devise a way to extricate his beloved aunts (and himself), in walks estranged brother Jonathan (Stephen Pelinski), a homicidal fugitive resembling Frankenstein’s monster thanks to botched plastic surgery by Dr. Einstein (Michael Gotch). Chaos results, of course, as Mortimer wrangles the entire Brewster family into a (possibly) happy ending.
Arsenic and Old Lace is legendary. Opening in 1941, it played throughout World War II, one of the longest-ever running non-musicals—over 1,400 Broadway performances and 1,300 in London. There have been successful films, but they’re no substitute for seeing the play onstage. Like writer Joseph Kesselring, director J.R. Sullivan is a master theatrical craftsman (he likens the play to a piece of intricate cabinetry), and his clockwork production does ample justice to the precision of the playwright’s finely oiled stage machine.
The cast seems delighted to bite into this big, chewy, three-act theatrical meal. Pirkl Tague and Heflin—who often play leading ladies of style and elegance—here are totally believable and equally delightful as the octogenarians with a zest for both life and afterlife. The entire company is uniformly excellent, but standouts include Matarrese—a bundle of manic energy, replete with pratfalls and double-takes—and Gotch, who manages to comically stop the production.
It’s great to be back at a show with such strong production values. Designer Stefanie Hansen created an iconic Victorian living room, with telling details like the frosted glass door revealing looming shadows and a dozen hats hanging in the basement entrance. Costumes by Kaye Voyce are perfect for the period and help to establish character, especially the Brewster sisters’ dresses. And the production is surprisingly spooky, thanks to Dawn Chiang’s changing lights, Eileen Smitheimer’s clever Foley-like sound design, and Ryan Touhey’s music successfully merging period songs with contemporary suspense.
The play runs two-and-a-half hours with two intermissions—but be not daunted. The opening night audience consensus (mine, too) was that the time flies by in such skilled hands. There’s plenty of well-handled exposition at the top, but as the energy accelerates, the “crazy” people seem the most centered, and it’s the “normal” Mortimer and Elain who reach the heights of hysteria.
Like a fine wine
Interestingly, the play itself ages well in some ways and not so well in others. It’s witty, well-acted, and excellently staged, but it’s not as uproariously funny as it seemingly was at its inception. In some ways, that’s helpful. You can see more clearly the intricate construction and recognize the sly innuendoes running underneath the comedy—criticisms of organized religion and the theater world. And the precarious balance between sanity and madness comes more to the fore.
Sullivan made an exceptionally smart choice to stage this production straightforwardly and guide the actors to do the same. There’s no comment or attempt to update or modernize. A helpful glossary in the digital program gives a clue to some period references, but Sullivan allows the play to speak in its original voice, with ample respect for the craft and focus of an era so very different from ours. For that reason, it still feels like the breath of fresh air it was 80 years ago.
Arsenic and Old Lace is unforgettable. One theatergoer reminisced about his indelible experience as a youngster of six or seven: “I laughed so hard I kept kicking the seat of the man in front of me, but I couldn’t help it. I had never seen anything like it.” That’s a true compliment to something so memorable that an audience member treasures the experience years later. This production of Arsenic and Old Lace is both a tribute to Kesselring’s skill and to the power of live theater. Laughter can reverberate down the years, and a great comedy can be as transformative as any tragedy.
What, When, Where
Arsenic and Old Lace. By Joseph Kesselring, directed by J.R. Sullivan. $30-$39. Through November 20, 2022, at Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts, 110 Orchard Road, Newark. (302) 831-2204 or rep.udel.edu.
Masks are not required. Actors are unmasked.
Thompson Theatre is ADA-compliant and equipped with a hearing loop system that works with hearing aid t-coils, cochlear implants, and in-house hearing devices. For wheelchair and seating requests, call (302) 831-2204 or email [email protected].
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