ARSENIC AND OLD LACE

photos: Fran Ruchalski

by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
On stage at Orange Park Community Theatre (OPCT) is Joseph Kesselring’s comedy-farce “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which will run through April 7. This play debuted in 1941 during World War II to good reviews, and has attained the status of a classic which is still very popular.
It all takes place in one of the oldest homes in Brooklyn, owned by two elderly spinster sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster. Abby is played by the always outstanding character actress Susan Carcaba, sister Martha by Alice Voorhees Basford. Ms. Basford, at an age when most actors might begin thinking of retiring from the theatre, is making her stage debut, is remarkably good, and seems to be a natural in the spotlight. They are a delightful and gently humorous pair and very charitable to everyone. But Abby and Martha do share a deadly secret hobby. They take in lonely old men without families as boarders and ply them with elderberry wine laced with arsenic. The sisters view the subsequent demise of their guests as an act of charity, because after all, the deceased will no longer suffer.
They are assisted by their wacky nephew Teddy, who believes he is President Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy thinks the set of stairs leading to his room is San Juan Hill, and frequently follows a blast on his bugle by commanding “Charge” and leading the way. He also believes the cellar is the Panama Canal, and as the President, he is actively involved in continued excavation. When told by his aunts that a victim has died from yellow fever, he regretfully carts the departed down to the cellar for burial. David Warber is outstanding as Teddy and he bears a strong resemblance to Roosevelt. Teddy and his aunts have been busy, there are twelve bodies buried in the cellar.
The only sane person in the family is nephew Mortimer. (Well, he is a theatre critic, so his sanity might be questionable as well.) Mortimer mostly hates the plays he is reviewing, but a job is a job. Sometimes he writes the review in the cab on the way to see the play, it saves time. (Now that is a brilliant idea.) Mort is engaged to the daughter of their next door neighbor, Reverend Harper (Fred Steel). Elaine Harper is wonderfully played by the attractive and very talented Jessica Palombo. Jessica has been away for the past 18 months at graduate school in Syracuse, and is currently an on-air reporter for local and state public radio.
The final member of the Brewster family arrives home after an absence of ten years. Jonathan (Steve McMahon) is a hardened criminal who has killed twelve people in various parts of the world. Jonathan is now on the lam and looking for a place for Dr. Einstein, his partner in crime, to repair his face after a botched facial surgery. Jonathan, whom everyone thinks looks like the old horror film guy Boris Karloff, is menacing and scary as played by McMahon. He could, though, use a few more scars, as his current look is too neat, unless Dr. Einstein was entirely sober when he did the surgery.
Long time OPCT actor (24 years) Bill LeSeur is very funny as sidekick Dr. Einstein. Of the many roles we have seen him do, our favorite is Alfred P. Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” some years ago, a show that starred Tom Nehl, who with his Tom Nehl Fund has become the most generous financial donor to area theaters over the years.
Well-known mystery dinner theatre actor Michael Smithgall, known for his comic ability to ad-lib, makes the most of one of the smaller roles as Officer O’Hara, a cop who wants to be a playwright and spends three hours relating the plot of his creation. Smithgall gave this role the most zip and energy we have ever seen.
Dave Quirk shines in two roles, as potential poison victim Mr. Gibbs and as the clueless Lieutenant Rooney. Cameron Henderson was very effective as Officer Brophy. The role is multi-cast; at the performance you see, it may be Franklin Ritch or Kristen Walsh playing Brophy. Robert Rojas was picture perfect as Mr. Witherspoon, administrator of a local psychiatric hospital. Carter Cheatum is Officer Klein.
A note on the role of Mortimer. We have always considered this part pivotal in the success of any production. His reaction at finding his aunts and brothers are responsible for dead bodies in the house sets the pace for all the action. Jack Bisson’s portrayal was remarkably animated, with some great double takes, comic timing, and lots and lots of energy. He and Ms. Palombo were a perfect match as a couple.
The lighting design by David Wells was excellent. The costumes by Regina Manning and the cast notably included a Rough Rider outfit for Teddy, demure blouses with long sleeves and long skirts for the sisters, and a very stylish red date dress for Elaine.
The set designed by the Director Sara Green was very functional, with excellent placement of all necessities like the cellar door, stairs leading upward, the large window seat, wooden furniture, and a front door that even featured a stained glass window provided by Irene Cheatum. The set did appear a bit modern for a house that was built in the 1800s and was as stated one of the oldest homes in Brooklyn.
This play has been around seventy years and is still as funny as ever. The play has a happy ending for almost everyone. No, we won’t tell who goes to jail.
This is Sara Green’s second time as a Director at OPTC, and she showed the same dedication to the selection of her cast as she did with her first show, “Barefoot in the Park.” She obviously gave careful consideration to the depiction of the characters, their ages and temperament and selected her cast wisely. Hollywood could not have done better.
Though it seems it should be rather grim with all those dead victims, the play and the OPCT production is a comic masterpiece, with everything done tongue-in-cheek. Call 276-2599 for reservations.

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october, 2021

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