Arsenic and Old Lace has been a staple of American theater since it opened in 1941, with countless high schools, community and professional theaters producing the dark comedy about the sweet little old ladies whose hobbies include murdering gentlemen with poisoned elderberry wine. Charity, they call it.
With its season opening production, The Woodford Theatre elegantly demonstrates why this Joseph Kesselring play remains a classic. Director Margo Buchanan treats the audience to a charming comedic romp that excels for its balance of quality technical and performance elements.
Todd Pickett’s sweeping scenic and lighting design thoroughly captures the formal frilliness of the Brewster sisters’ historic family home. There is no disbelief to suspend since Pickett’s designs (and technical director Dawn Connerley’s execution of them) recreate the Brewsters' home in stunning detail. Architectural flourishes like a stained glass window above the door and expensive, working chandeliers that float above the stage, illuminating shelves stuffed with a menagerie of curious props, easily convince the audience they are voyeurs on the lives of two rich, elderly women (Melissa Rae Wilkeson and Sharon Sikorski).
As a result, the stately Brewster home is the last place one would expect to find a family of homicidal maniacs. And yet, there is more than one body lurking in the window seat over the course of the evening, not to mention the horrors that lurk in the basement, otherwise known as Panama.
Their nephew Teddy (Jeff Ramsey), who believes he is President Theodore Roosevelt, spends plenty of time down in Panama, digging locks for the Panama Canal. Sometimes, he buries victims of “yellow fever” in these locks. Ramsey’s robustly comical take as a deluded pretend Teddy Roosevelt is one of the show's funnier, ongoing gags. The way the sisters treat Teddy also shows how the family makes its brand of crazy work. They let Teddy pretend to be the president because it makes him happy. And when the sisters' secret endeavors as mercy killers is revealed, they aren’t in the least bit ashamed or worried, but instead are proud of what they see as charitable acts. They even perform full funerals and lay flowers on each of the basement’s dozen graves every Sunday.
Wilkeson and Sikorski are pitch perfect in their roles, portraying the Brewster sisters with the serene, occasionally fussy, spinster gentility that makes their macabre deeds all the more shocking.
Also particularly enjoyable are Shayne Brakefield and Carmen Geraci’s portrayal of murderous duo Jonathan Brewster, the oddball brother who moved away years ago, and his accomplice, plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Herman, not Albert). Due to Einstein giving Jonathan a “new face” presumably after each murder spree, he now resembles Boris Karloff, the king of horror movies when the play was written. Geraci’s soft German accent, obvious reticence and fear of Jonathan and penchant for physical comedy combined with the pair’s fluid shared comic timing make their performances one of the evening’s most entertaining elements. Brakefield’s slow, lumbering movement and deeply maniacal laugh showcase Jonathan’s disturbing creep factor, securing his place as the most deranged and dangerous of all of the Brewsters.
The third brother, Mortimer (Timothy Hull), appears to be the only sane and normal member of the Brewster family, even though he is a caustic theater critic, a profession which Kesselring’s script has fun playfully eviscerating. Hull relishes plenty of tongue in cheek, self-aware theater humor, particularly in the second act when he finds himself unknowingly replaying a play he didn’t like. His impending marriage to the wholly normal Elaine Harper (brightly played by Evender Hodges) is in jeopardy when he thinks he, too, will inherit the Brewster madness. But will he?
Despite the bodies in the basement, the poison, a competition for the most and best murders, and other ghastly deeds, the show is also somehow good, clean fun, suitable for all ages and sensibilities. But what do I know? I wrote this on the way to the theater.*
* Candace Chaney did actually see this show -- inside Arsenic and Old Lace joke -- and is a Lexington-based writer and critic.