ARSENIC AND OLD LACE theatre review

photo by mary hess

The Foundation Academy presented the classic comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace on November 18-21, at the school campus on San Pablo Road in Jacksonville.
Joseph Kesselring’s charming comedy debuted on Broadway 69 years ago to good reviews. It has become a staple for high school and community theatres since then and Foundation’s production was a crowd pleaser even though the play was older than 99% of the people in the audience.
As we waited for the opening scene, we were impressed by the Brooklyn mansion created by Joe Harris, Greg Stites and Jim Lynch. The setting, which encompasses a dining room and living room, with a set of stairs leading to an upstairs hallway, is beautifully rendered. Walls are painted to resemble marbled wallpaper, with dark wooden half-paneling. Chairs and other wooden furnishings are in dark oak, with upholstery in patterned fabric.
This is the home of the Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, two sweet old ladies who offer lodging to forlorn old men and then poison them with homemade elderberry wine, justifying their actions as merciful interventions. The bodies are buried in the cellar by their lunatic brother, Teddy, who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt, and the cellar is the Panama Canal. Mortimer Brewster, the only normal member of the family, is a drama critic who struggles to maintain his sanity after he learns about the misdeeds of his aunts.
Things get even more complicated when a Jonathan, a sinister long-lost brother, arrives with Dr. Einstein, his own plastic surgeon and crime-buddy; they hope to set up a clinic to give facelifts to Brooklyn criminals. Much madness ensues. If you missed it, you can find an excellent 1944 film starring Cary Grant at your local library.
Greta Clark as Abby and Cassidy Butler as Martha were line perfect and very convincing as little old ladies. Nick Vogler as the bugle-blowing Teddy got a lot of laughs and played his role with gusto. Josh Matos, as Mortimer, was the most experienced actor in the show, and has appeared in four of the Florida State College summer arts programs. He played the frantic and frustrated critic just right in every detail.
Attractive Peyton Enfinger played Elaine, Mortimer’s fiancée, with style. Derek Caywood as Dr. Einstein and Brian Stuckey were convincing as crime partners. This was Mr. Stuckey’s first time on stage and he was perfect for the part physically with his size and wonderful facial scars (fake, of course!!)
The interesting cameo roles in the play are one of the reasons it remains a popular choice for school productions. These roles included: Josh Santora (Officer Brody), Zach Pridgen (Officer Klein), David Medina (Dr. Harper), Robert McKenzie (Mr. Gibbs), Derek Caywood (Officer O’Hara), Melvin Reynolds (Lieutenant Rooney), and Nick Augustini (Mr. Witherspoon). Understudies for the show were Brandon Carter and Chris Walker.
We knew this was a period piece when the first actors appeared on stage, dressed in costumes created by Director Madaline Hill and Glinda Nettles. The ladies wore long dark skirts and white blouses with long sleeves. And most of the major male characters wear suits – with ties and hats.
As an instructor at Foundation, Madaline Hill uses theatre as a teaching tool, believing that theater is the ultimate preparation test; as it helps students learn important lessons about commitment and the value of being prepared.
Although the subject matter seems gruesome with those multiple murders, the play is really a comedy farce that has endured and is truly entertaining. And it was doubtless a mini-lesson in history for the cast, with many references to President Roosevelt, Boris Karloff, the Panama Canal and Adolf Hitler. It was great to revisit “Arsenic and Old Lace”, an old friend, and a fun, wacky evening of theatre.