Obligatory Disclaimer: This is a review, there are spoilers, get over it. If a play is from the 40s, can this still be considered a “spoiler”?! – XOXO, Miss Jaye
The Fire Hall Theatre is celebrating the closing of their 68th season with one of my favorite classic comedies: Arsenic & Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring. It’s a silly romp about two elderly women who invite lonely lodgers into their home and murder them with poisoned elderberry wine. Originally opening in 1939, the show has been entertaining audiences for more than 75 years and director Patrick DeMars and his cast and crew have put together a lovely little piece of nostalgia.
Abby (Deborah Todhunter) and Martha Brewster (Laura Gerla) are two sweet little old ladies who dearly love their nephews Teddy (C.J. Leigh) and Mortimer (Sam O’Donnell), and what time they don’t spend doting on them they spend at one or another of their various “charities”: collecting old toys for Officer Brophy (Greg Jones) and his men to repair for needy children, bringing homemade broth to sick neighbors and friends – and murdering lonely men with no families and burying them in the basement (after proper Christian services, of course). This way of life has been working out just fine for them until the day Mortimer discovers Mr. Hoskins, the most recently deceased lodger to grace the Brewster home, stuffed into a window seat. From the moment Mortimer makes this gruesome discovery, his life is turned into a madcap series of close calls and impossible situations, much to the consternation of his neighbor and peppy love interest Elaine (Rebekah Brewer). Her father, the local minister Dr. Harper (Paul Tandberg), may have his reservations about Mortimer’s occupation (he’s a theatre critic – and being exposed to all of that theatre can’t possibly be good for his moral character, can it?!), but Elaine is head over heels and nothing is going to stand in her way – including the sudden reappearance of Mortimer’s menacing older brother Johnathan (Frank Sikich) and his equally unnerving accomplice Dr. Einstein (Chris Gust). The rest of the cast includes Greg Norman as Mr. Gibbs, another of the Brester sisters’ potential victims; Patrick Frost Pearson as Officer O’Hara, a Brooklyn cop with a secret dream of being a playwright; Tim Biby as Lt. Rooney, an oafish policeman with little eye for detail; and Terry Dullum making a third act appearance as Mr. Witherspoon, the director of Happy Dale Sanitarium.
In terms of performances, everyone in the cast does a great job of creating their individual character and giving them interesting moments but the standout performers for me were the three women. Todhunter and Gerla do a wonderful job of creating two murderesses who are the definition of sweetness and virtue; they absolutely believe that their crimes are a form of charity for the lonely men they encounter. It would be easy to play them as batty or clearly mad, but Todhunter and Gerla keep them very grounded and nurturing, and their absolutely unquestioning attitude about the virtues of their activities is so good as to be unnerving – perhaps it really is a service to mankind? And while Brewer has less to work with in terms of stage time, her portayal of Elaine is perfection: sweet and coy, just sassy enough to play well against the more repressed Mortimer, and much more knowing than the time period would give most women credit for. She seems to be exactly what the word “spunky” was created to describe.
Leigh also takes a good turn as Teddy Brewster, a man who believes that he is President Teddy Roosevelt. Leigh makes an interesting choice in playing Teddy with a mixture of presidential gravitas and a childlike joy that underscores his benign senility. Like Elaine, he is a playful foil for Mortimer; O’Donnell’s portrayal is mostly successful, giving Mortimer a harried quality as he tries to fix everything as it goes wrong around him, though there are moments where he is a bit too ponderous and the pace falters.
Sikich and Gust are wonderfully matched as Jonathan and Dr. Einstein. One of the gags of Jonathan’s character is that he is supposed to resemble Boris Karloff after an operation by Einstein (a back alley surgeon who specializes in giving emergency “makeovers” to wanted criminals); Karloff originated the role and was immensely popular. Sikich is clomping and broody and is clearly the heavy in their partnership – all fist and no discussion. Gust’s accent for the German doctor is a little bit German, a little bit Renfield, a little bit Warner Brothers cartoon – but it’s strangely effective. It provides the perfect amount of levity next to the threatening Jonathan.
One of the challenges of seeing a show on the preview night, especially with a comedy, is that the dynamic of the performance changes when you have a mostly full house compared to a few gathered friends and theatre folks. Arsenic is an old comedy and it works best when it’s played for laughs at a steady pace – not a lot of deep thinking required! Having an audience, especially if there are lots of great laughers, can really pump up the energy of a show and help keep the pace moving at the right speed; while there was nothing specifically wrong with the performance I saw, and as I noted above everyone has done a great job of crafting their characters and giving them weight and dimension, there were stretches where the pace and the energy were dragging a bit. There was a little too much thinking, too much reacting, too much pondering; I intend to see the show at least once more during it’s run because my bet is that once you get some more butts in the seats, the laughter from the crowd will help build the energy back to where it needs to be.
Now, on to the technical details. First, let’s conquer that set. This is the first time that the Fire Hall has worked with Simonson’s Pro Install, and Steve Forman and Joseph Wack did an amazing job of creating the Brewster home. One of the gimmicks of the show is that Teddy, thinking that he is Roosevelt, always ascends the stairs at a full gallop yelling “Charge!” as though he were rushing up San Juan Hill. In fact, when I heard that the Fire Hall was doing Arsenic, my first thought was “What the hell are they thinking?!” That charge up the stairs is so iconic to the play, and I never believed they would be able to adequately create it in the Fire Hall’s limited space. And while the turn of the stairs definitely changes the dynamics of the charge, it actually gives rise to some very interesting moments of characters sharing space that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. I also think that Leigh’s style of playing Teddy as somewhat childlike helps make this fit within the world of the play.
As for the set decoration, they are definitely shooting for realism and there is a gorgeous selection of antique pieces on the stage; every time someone jumped up on one of the dining chairs I cringed! The dressing of the stage is superbly well done, with one gripe: the color of the walls leading up the stairs makes me want to cause violence. Seriously. The rest of the room is a light peachy beige, perfect for the time period (this was long before people were putting up garish wallpapers or painting in every color Martha Stewart can think up in that deviously brilliant mind), and the doors are varnished wood (and look to be antiques themselves) but the walls along the stairs have this brownish (with maybe the tiniest hint of deep, deep green?) color that is painted…no wait…sponge-painted on and creates this dark void right in the middle of the stage. There is a cuckoo clock on the wall that is almost the exact same color as the sponge-painting, so it’s hard to even see that it’s there. The fact that this one element is so maddening to me is a credit to the effectiveness of the rest of the design: when I look at a set, I try to read the “story” that it’s telling me and I usually run across minor details here and there that confuse me or don’t seem to fit. With this stage, every piece seems to work perfectly…except that damn wall. And the clock; I might not even hate it that much if it had a framed painting or some other decoration that didn’t seem to melt into it. I’m starting to feel like the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” – I can’t stop thinking about it!
Costumes for the show were also very well done. The sisters look period appropriate without wearing overly fussy garments. Mortimer wears a light blue suit that at first glance seems an odd choice for him (as the most “normal” Brewster of the bunch, I might have pictured him in brown – perhaps something tweed?) but is a great contrast once brother Jonathan shows up on the scene. Elaine’s garments are flowy and light – modest enough for the time but with little hints of sheerness to play up the more liberated aspects of her character. The cop uniforms are slightly goofy, but the cops in the show are meant to be goofy themselves, more Keystone cops than actual peace-keepers.
Don’t go into this show expecting any big twists or startling reveals – it’s a comedy from a simpler time which presents a ludicrous situation and places a sane, grounded individual in the middle of it (in this case, Mortimer) in order to put things right again. And DeMars and the gang have polished this little gem to a lovely shine. You have three weekends to catch this show, and I really suggest you do. This is one of those classic pieces that ages beautifully, like a delicious wine. But if the wine is elderberry, you may want to grab a bottle of water from the concession stand instead – and check the seal! Just to be on the safe side…
Arsenic & Old Lace runs May 12-14, 19-22, and 26-28 with shows at 7:30 (and a Sunday matinee at 2 pm on the 22nd). The show is co-produced by the Historic Norman Funeral Home.
Just for funsies – you can find some interesting history and trivia about Arsenic & Old Lace HERE.
Tags: Amy Driscoll, Arsenic And Old Lace, Champagne Dreams Productions, Deborah Todhunter, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Frank Sikich, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, Greg Jones, Greg Norman, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Laura gerla, Miss Jaye, Norman Funeral Homes, Pat DeMars, Patrick DeMars, Patrick Frost Pearson, Patrick Pearson, Rebekah Brewer, Sam O'Donnell, World of Champagne