While theater critics are not necessarily a beloved breed, Mortimer Brewster (Shain Stroff) is hard not to love in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE as he discovers he lives in a house of lunatics. The night he becomes engaged to the local Reverend’s daughter, Elaine Harper (Savannah Elam), he discovers a corpse in the window seat of his childhood home. It is a Dick Van Dyke meets Judy Garland match-up with this pair.
His aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster (Hillary Hickam, Patti Eyler), live in the house with one of Mortimer’s brothers, Teddy Brewster (Alec Hadden). The sisters are well-loved members of the community, while Teddy lives in a world where he is Theodore Roosevelt. Imagine Mortimer’s horror when he finds that his aunts, not Teddy, have knowingly put the corpse in the window seat. Their charity is relieving old men from loneliness by giving them a glass of elderberry wine made with berries fresh from the neighboring cemetery, arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide. All three roles are wonderfully-cast, and the banter with and between the sisters is seamless.
Enter the villain of the show, Jonathan Brewster (Chad Conley), who has brought along his personal plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Kevin Roberts), whose last makeover on Jonathan left him looking like Boris Karloff. When he finds out that his grandfather’s lab and ward upstairs are intact, Jonathan makes plans to take over the house and set up a surgery center. Jonathan is a psychopath, without empathy or emotions. Conley portrays a smiley evil; my preference is something more somber to give more weight to this role. Roberts’ stature and mannerisms are perfect for Dr. Einstein.
A smaller role that wound up stealing their scene is Officer O’Hara (Jonathan Van Dyke). O’Hara is a wannabe playwright, who upon finding Mortimer tied up and gagged by Jonathan leaves him in that state to hear his play synopsis through the night. Van Dyke was hilarious both sober and soused.
Several additional cast members round out the ensemble to ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, a masterfully-written dark comedy by Joseph Kesselring. It is two-and-a-half hours with intermission, but the time flew and the audience roared.
The set was beautiful and very effective, and the costuming was perfect for the era. The play was written amidst the turmoil at the start of WWII. It opened on Broadway in 1941, and the film was actually made that same year anticipating a short run on Broadway. It was so successful that the film was not released, per contract, until the show closed in 1944.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is at the Alhambra Theatre, 12000 Beach Blvd., March 23-April 16, 2023. Ticket prices vary based on the show and seating. For reservations, go to alhambrajax.com or call (904) 641-1212.
By Cessy Newmon