The hardest part about producing a show like Arsenic and Old Lace is that it carries the baggage of 60 years’ worth of productions, not to mention a well-loved film version. Overcoming that can be a challenge for any director. The way director Allison Shigo seemed to have handled it was by making sure her actors were well-prepared, then telling them to have a great time, which they most certainly did. And their delight with Kesselring’s play was contagious.
Most people are familiar with the story. Mortimer Brewster, a cynical theatre critic (as if there were such a thing), is the normal one in a family that includes two sweet, homicidal aunts, an evil brother who looks like Boris Karloff, and another brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. He also has an insistent fiancée who doesn’t understand why he doesn’t want to get married -- and a basement full of bodies that he has to keep hidden.
This is an actor’s show and the cast really got to shine. Stephanie Hepburn and Janet Luhrs were delightful as the maiden aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster, who didn’t understand why there was such a fuss about the 12 lonely gentlemen they’d buried in their basement. Gary Marachek was wonderfully over the top as Teddy and, with his handlebar mustache and safari gear, certainly looked the part. As the evil brother, Jonathan Brewster, Frank Perich was creepy and malevolent, with a voice that could raise chills. Kevin Shinnick, playing Jonathan’s sidekick Dr. Einstein, was amusing and had some priceless facial expressions, but his comic timing was a little off. Douglas Paulson and Pam Diem as Mortimer and his fiancée, Elaine, were no Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane, which was a good thing. Both succeeded in creating unique and likable characters of their own, without stooping to mimicry. Diem played up the sexiness of the preacher’s daughter while Paulson milked the laughs by emphasizing the physical comedy. Both gave very solid performances, and there was good chemistry between them.
Two other actors stood out in smaller roles; Anthony Spaldo, who, as Mr. Gibbs, a potential victim of the aunts, had one of the funniest scenes of the show, and Ric Sechrest, who was just right as the clueless, yet earnest, cop and wannabe playwright, Officer O’Hara.
Production values for the show were remarkably strong. The set, by Tom Lenz, had just the right “old lady” feel to it and was able to overcome the limits of the shallow stage. Designer Joan Campbell’s costumes were just right, from Mortimer’s natty suit to Aunt Abby’s Victorian funeral dress to the uniforms worn by the police.
If there were ever any question why Arsenic and Old Lace has been repeatedly produced for over 60 years, this production answered it. In the hands of a good director and cast, Kesselring’s snappy dialogue and well-drawn characters will always be a crowd-pleaser.
(Also featuring Edward Fagan, Johnny Culver, James Pero, and Joe Cooper.)
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Copyright 2006 Byrne Harrison