by Barbara Waldinger
Can this 1941 farcical black comedy still amuse an audience in 2017? You bet–check out Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace on The Fitzpatrick Main Stage. If its initial pre-war audience craved an escapist entertainment, perhaps we too might be grateful to enjoy a good laugh and avoid today’s headlines. Joseph Kesselring’s fast-paced story of crazies and murderous misfits appears in the nick of time.
The plot, you may recall, concerns the Brewster sisters (Harriet Harris and Mia Dillon)—two sweet, charitable old ladies who take it upon themselves to poison lonely, aged, unattached males in order to put them out of their misery. Their visiting nephew Mortimer (Graham Rowat), upon learning to his horror that a dozen men are buried in the cellar, determines to save his aunts from prosecution. The play is, believe it or not, fact-based. Beginning in 1907, one Amy Archer-Gilligan operated a convalescent home in Windsor, Connecticut. Residents, including a couple of her husbands, began disappearing after Archer-Gilligan convinced them to pay a flat fee of $1,000 to cover expenses incurred during their lifetime (which didn’t last very long). Investigations of no fewer than 48 deaths in a four-year period produced evidence of poison. A gruesome tale, but Kesselring decided to give it a comic twist after a nudge from his producers.
Arsenic and Old Lace was an immediate hit, running on Broadway from 1941 to 1944, and its success had interesting ramifications. A film version, directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant, was shot in 1941 but its release was delayed until the Broadway run finally ended three years later. Capra had wanted Boris Karloff to repeat his Broadway role in the film (Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer’s brother), but the producers wouldn’t allow him to leave the stage production. Capra had to settle for Raymond Massey, who was then made up to look like Boris Karloff. In Kesselring’s play, the homicidal Jonathan had undertaken to disguise his identity, but the surgery, performed by his drunk, incompetent accomplice, was botched and he was turned into a Karloff look-alike. Even without Karloff, the movie was immensely popular.
Translated into many languages and performed throughout the world in theatrical, film, and television versions, this play has always been a favorite of community theatres.
But professional theatres, at least in the Berkshires, have not turned to this old chestnut recently. Berkshire Theatre Group’s Artistic Director Kate Maguire has taken it on, and turned it over to Gregg Edelman, who encouraged his actors to broaden the comedy into over-the-top farce. In this, he followed Frank Capra. Cary Grant believed his performance as Mortimer was one of his worst, complaining: “I couldn’t do that kind of comedy—all those double takes. I’d have been better as one of the old aunts!” Yet Graham Rowat excels in his role as Mortimer here. He plays a fast-talking, fast-walking, double-taking drama critic who hates the theatre. Whenever he is onstage we are swept up in the urgency of his mission. Mia Dillon and especially Harriet Harris perfectly capture the unawareness of the sisters who don’t see that they’ve done anything wrong, as they proudly describe how they poison their victims and use their batty nephew Teddy (Timothy Gulan), who believes he’s Theodore Roosevelt, to dig their graves in what he imagines are the locks of the Panama Canal (actually, the cellar). Wonderful performances, both. Gulan, incredibly energetic, repeatedly blows his bugle and screams “CHARGE!” as he runs up San Juan Hill (the staircase). The most lovable aspect of his performance is the way he expects and receives the respect due to a president. The third nephew, Jonathan (Matt Sullivan), the creepiest of the eccentrics, engages with his aunts in a competition to see who has killed the most people. He provides the scariest moments of the play, while his long-suffering comic sidekick, the German Dr. Einstein (Tom Story—well-played) just wants to lead a stable, normal life. Gerry McIntyre, who plays a police officer dreaming of being a playwright, brings enthusiasm and a dancer’s physicality to this improbable cop. Katie Birenboim, as Elaine Harper, one of the few rational characters, plays the “straight man” to her fiancé, Mortimer. Although she exhibits admirable spunk, she has a disconcerting habit of speaking out to the audience, regardless of whom she is addressing.
The finely detailed old Brewster home (designed by Randall Parsons) is said to have been modeled on a boarding house where Kesselring lived while teaching at Bethel College in Kansas. The Brooklyn living room is mostly brown with blue trim, filled with feminine touches—curtains on all of the windows, a lovely blue and gold tablecloth, many old photos, one of which happens to be a portrait of Amy Archer-Gilligan (!), and the all-important window seat with a pull-up cover recessed below two tall windows. Sound designer Scott Killian supplies period songs but his most amusing contribution is the organ music that signals frightening events to follow. Costume designer (Hunter Kaczorowski) dresses all of the characters in appropriate clothing but the most interesting outfits are worn by Gulan as Theodore Roosevelt (at one point he wears two hats for an African safari). Lighting designer Alan Edwards adds to the macabre atmosphere, enabling us to see what the characters are up to, even in semi-darkness.
The play is long: by the third act, after two intermissions it can get a bit tedious. There are 14 characters, some of whom could have been excised without sacrificing the essential plot. However, like a fireworks display, enough colorful personalities are thrown in to keep the action going. With strong performances and capable direction, Arsenic and Old Lace can still elicit laughter after all these years.
Arsenic and Old Lace runs from July 27—August 19 at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage. For tickets call 413-997-4444 or online at berkshiretheatregroup.org.
Berkshire Theatre Group presents Arsenic and Old Lace. Cast: Katie Birenboim (Elaine Harper), Ryan Chittaphong (Officer Klein), Mia Dillon (Martha Brewster), Timothy Gulan (Teddy Brewster), Harriet Harris (Abby Brewster), Walter Hudson (Mr. Gibbs/Mr. Witherspoon), Gerry McIntyre (Officer O’Hara), Graham Rowat (Mortimer Brewster), Tom Story (Dr. Einstein), Matt Sullivan (Jonathan Brewster), Michael Sullivan (Officer Brophy), Walton Wilson (The Rev. Dr. Harper/Lieutenant Rooney). Director: Gregg Edelman, Scenic Designer: Randall Parsons, Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski, Lighting Designer: Alan Edwards, Sound Designer: Scott Killian, Wig Designer: J. Jared Janas, Stage Manager: Jason Weixelman. Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including two intermissions; at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 East Main Street, Stockbridge, MA., from July 27; closing August 19.