DUAL CRITICS REVIEW: ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ at Theatre Jacksonville

Photos by Maya Adkins

Theatre Jacksonville began the 2018-19 season with the staging of Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” as the selection for its annual Classic in San Marco series (September 14 —30, 2018). Good reviews followed the play’s debut in 1941 and it has remained popular. It is one of the best dark comedies of all time; a comedy filled with hilarious frenzied activity, and the funniest play we have seen this year.

fri14sep(sep 14)7:30 pmsun30(sep 30)9:00 pmFeaturedARSENIC AND OLD LACE7:30 pm - 9:00 pm (30) Theatre Jacksonville

As we waited for the opening scene, we were impressed by the interior of the Brooklyn mansion created by Tim Watson, the theatre’s Scenic, Lighting and Technical Director. The setting, which portrays a combined dining and living room with a set of stairs leading to a second floor, is beautifully rendered.

The home belongs to two elderly sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster, portrayed by award-winning actors Simone Aden-Reid and Gayle Featheringill. Both have graced our local stages for many years. The sisters are delightful; gentle, and soft-spoken while ironically humorous. They share a secret mission: they offer to rent lodging in their spacious home to lonely elderly men and then serve elderberry wine laced with arsenic to those who accept. The sisters view the hastening of death as an act of charity which ends loneliness.

After each death, the sisters tell their wacko nephew Teddy they’ve discovered still another yellow fever victim, and he buries the body in the cellar. Teddy believes he is President Theodore Roosevelt, believes that the staircase leading to his room is San Juan Hill, and frequently acts out this delusional fantasy by playing loud blasts on his bugle, yelling “Charge,” and rushing up the stairs. C. Michael Porter, who looks very much like the real Teddy Roosevelt, is hilarious in what is his thirteenth role on Theatre Jacksonville’s stage.

The only normal person in this family is Mortimer Brewster, brilliantly played by Rich Pintello. Well — almost normal — Mortimer is a theatre critic for a local paper who hates theatre. He often takes the easy way out by writing his reviews while riding in a taxi on his way to see the play. When he learns about the activities of Abby, Martha, and Teddy, he does enough double takes to disjoint his body for life.

Actress Sara Beth Gerard-Summers appears as Elaine Harper, Mortimer’s fiancée, who is charming and stylish and shows off some fantastic glamour-girl dresses.

photo: Maya Adkins

Things become complicated when Jonathan, a sinister long-lost brother, arrives with his personal plastic surgeon and buddy in crime. They plan to remain and open a clinic offering facelifts to local criminals. Jonathan is portrayed by Alec Hadden, who has an outstanding voice; past performances have included singing the national anthem at major sporting events. Jonathan is indeed scary, he is menacing, mercurial, has multiple scars from botched facial surgery, and has killed twelve people. Kerry Burke-McCloud, making his Theatre Jacksonville debut as Dr. Einstein, is convincing as a hardened criminal.

We won’t go further into the story, other than to say madness ensues. Much of the frantic fun is because of the supporting cast members. Brad Trowbridge, a thirty-year veteran of TJ’s stage, has a wonderful cameo role as Mr. Witherspoon. Jim Warren, in another cameo role as a lonely man seeking lodging, was excellent. We recall seeing Jim previously in his award-winning role in Limelight’s “Grapes of Wrath.” The Rev. Dr. Harper, Elaine’s father, is played by Gary Lee Webber, who appeared as Atticus Finch in TJ’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.” He was perfectly cast for this show; he is the Pastor of Southside Baptist Church in real life.

We have seen this play several times and this production was notable for its convincing portrayal of police officers. The cast members were Kris Fabbro (Officer Klein), Tyler Hammond (Officer O’Hara), Matt King (Officer Brophy), and Brandon Kraut (Officer O’Hara); they looked like and acted like well-meaning policemen.

The marvelous costumes reflecting a past era were created by Curtis J. Williams.

Instructor Joe Kemper directed this production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” to perfection. He teaches Musical Theatre at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, and is in demand for his directing talents at theatres in Jacksonville and St. Augustine. After Kemper directed “The Maids” at St. Augustine’s Flagler College in 2016, the play was taken to the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival and he received two distinguished directing awards. We have seen several of his plays and were impressed by both his direction and his exceptional ability to select cast members who truly fit their assigned roles.

When you see the show, you will receive what is possibly the most comprehensive program you have ever seen. Since the play is TJ’s Classic, it contains a study guide, excellent biographies, and everything you could ever want to know about Joseph Kesselring and the history of his play.

The production team included Joe Kemper (Director), Tim Watson (Scenic Design), Curtis J. Williams (Costume Designer), Brady Corum (Assistant Technical Director), Mae Davis (Stage Manager), Lauren Vonder Muehll (Assistant Stage Manager), Audie Gibson (Light Board Operator), Mae Davis (Sound Board Operator), and Gayle Featheringill (Properties).

Next up for Theatre Jax is a fundraiser to kick off its 99th season. There will be three shows offered on Saturday, October 13, 2018, and you can get tickets for one, two, or all three productions.

The first show begins at 2:00 pm; Ken Fallin, a nationally known celebrity caricaturist and Jacksonville native, will entertain in “Show and Tell” as he recounts highlights of his career.

The second show begins at 4:30 pm; Sarah Boone pays homage to the fair-haired leading ladies of classic film musicals in “Hollywood Blondes.”

The third show begins at 7:30 pm; Linda Purl celebrates the great ladies of the night club era in “Midnight Caravan.”

For reservations and additional information, call (904) 396-4425 or visit www.theatrejax.com.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.