Check In For Laughs “Arsenic & Old Lace”

Mental Brothers, Murderous Aunts and 13 Dead Bodies in the Cellar: Normal Family Affairs in “Arsenic and Old Lace”   

A single teaspoon of arsenic mixed in wine. Not in tea, as it leaves a suspicious odor, calmly advises sweet old Aunt Martha her astounded nephew Mortimer of her deadly concoction.

The quiet inanity of the whole scene provokes laughter. In fact, that belly-hurting amusement is all I can recall from the first time I saw Arsenic and Old Lace, a 1941 play by Joseph Kesselring. I was with a bunch of university friends – all of us cheering for our pals on stage.

Several years later, I find myself in another packed auditorium – that of Fernandina’s Amelia Community Theatre (ACT). This time, strangers flank me and we all cackle at the absurd, twisted situations the peculiar Brewster family seems to thrive on. Preluding the show, Ron Kurtz, who over the years has dissected the play as a set designer, an actor and now, a director, vowed a night of entertainment. His glittery, violet suspenders and a matching bowtie twinkled under the lights – a wink to his promise.

And the performance proves his word. The stage – molded into a coquettish living room in Brooklyn during World War II, quickly fills with a motley gaggle of characters, portrayed by an equally diverse group of actors. Some professional veterans, others rookie amateurs, they seem to color all stripes of life – from retirees to makeup artists to court reporters to proposal analysts. Yet, their verve for the craft enlivens the rather well-known plot.

The one-hour-and-half long play, running since early June at ACT, which is producing it for the second time in a little over three decades, unravels the dusk – yet, droll – events that take theater critic Mortimer Brewster (Ben Davis) on an incredulously fast ride in the span of a night. He proposes to his girl-next-door sweetheart Elaine (Paige Miklas), but upon a chilling discovery soon afterwards, urges her out of the house. The sinister secret overshadows his relationship.

arsenic 7His spinster aunts, Martha (Gayle Featheringill) and Abby (Sue Weiner) have fostered “a bad habit” of bestowing eternal relief – in a glass of arsenic-laced wine – to elderly gentlemen, seeking to rent a room. Mortimer nearly gulps from their poison only to almost get killed by his lunatic, jilted brother Jonathan (Frank O’Donnell) – who returns home with his own dead load and an audacious plan. All the while, his other brother staunchly trusts himself to be President Teddy Roosevelt, barging up and down the stairs and in and out of Panama, or the cellar, where the Aunties had buried their victims. The family ties tangle, the body count rises and Mortimer frantically tries to keep his own sanity.

Arsenic 1While the storyline might knot a couple of times, Arsenic and Old Lace is easy to follow. Its ACT interpretation – quick to delight with some commendable acting talents. Sue Weiner and Gayle Featheringill imbued the two Aunties with charm and sway that dominate the stage. While Frank O’Donnell’s Jonathan speaks as much with his words as with his restless body, Ben Davis’s expressive face turns Mortimer into a tragicomic role. Yet, the most believable is perhaps Thom Mason, who boasting a formidable mustache, channels such formality that his deranged Teddy feels utterly fair-minded.

And Mason is quite sane, jokingly assured me a middle-aged viewer beside me, who says the two often bike together. That night, he is out to watch his peers in the cast, heartily laughs and vigorously claps at each draw of the front curtain. I am here on my own, but the communal facet of ACT perks me up enough to join the line for the “Elder Lady’s Drink” during the 10-minute intermission. Delectable scarlet vino sans arsenic but mixed with a fine play is the recipe for a night well spent.

Event: Arsenic and Old Lace

Venue: Amelia Community Theatre, 207 Cedar str., Fernandina Beach

Date: June 9 – 25, 2016

Tickets: adults – $22 and students through college – $10

Contact: (904) 261-6749 or ameliacommunitytheatre.org

 

Director: Ron Kurtz

Cast:

Martha Brewster…………………………………Gayle Featheringill
Abby Brewster……………………………………Sue Weiner
Teddy Brewster………………………………….Thom Mason
Mortimer Brewster………………………………Ben Davis
Elaine Harper…………………………………….Paige Miklas
Officer O’Hara……………………………………Doug Rozeboom
Lieutenant Rooney……………………………..Larry Ronk
Jonathan Brewster……………………………..Frank O’Donnell
Dr. Einstein……………………………………….Michael Miller

About Dima Vitanova

One comment

  1. Frank O'Donnell

    Thank you so much for the kind words about Arsenic and Old Lace.