By Christine Maxted
Have you ever felt like you’re the only normal one in your family? Feel like your family is driving you crazy? You aren’t alone! Mortimer Brewster knows exactly what this is like living with his family in Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace. Opening on Broadway in 1941 and in the West End in 1942, Arsenic and Old Lace is most famous for its 1944 film adaptation starring Cary Grant. A classic farce, it is well-loved for its clueless cops, absurd circumstances, and hysterical pokes at the immorality of the theater. Of course, no farce would be complete without a few harmless murders.
Kesselring’s play begins in 1940s Brooklyn, New York, where we meet the eccentric, elderly Brewster sisters: Abby Brewster (Lesleyanne Kessler) and Martha Brewster (Carolyn Corsano Wong). Both Kessler and Wong shine in their roles as sweet charming models of virtue and grace. Kessler and Wong’s admirable ability to effortlessly energize their scenes creates a captivating onstage dynamic. The seamless synchronization of their gestures and dialogue is evidence of not only their talents but director Talya Conroy’s effort in understanding their characters’ relationships. In particular, Wong’s performance demonstrates the epitome of a skilled actor through her ability to transport viewers into the world of the character. Wong embodies Martha’s essence with such conviction that it is difficult to distinguish Wong from the character she is playing.
The Brewster sisters are greeted by their nephew, Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic. Played by Eduardo Reyes Perez, Mortimer is seen as a chivalrous, good-hearted cynic. At first appearing as a controlled young man, Reyes Perez electrifies the character once he discovers a body in the window seat of the Brewster home. Mortimer’s aunts calmly share they have been poisoning lonely old men with their homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide. The sisters justify their well-intentioned murders by claiming they are doing a humanitarian service by ending the suffering of these lonely men.
Mortimer frantically tries to deal with the bodies in his aunts’ basements, while handling the unwelcomed return of his criminally insane, long-lost brother, Jonathan (Cliff Rieger). Rieger introduces the audience to the sociopathic villain of the show. Demonstrating a lack of empathy and a quiet temper, Rieger shows how Jonathan’s threatening presence permeates all his scenes. Jonathan, who recently had plastic surgery to disguise his identity, travels with an incompetent plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Paul Smith). Serving as a comedic foil to Jonathan, Smith’s lovable Dr. Einstein elicited roars of laughter from the audience. The duo plan to lay low at the Brewster home, unaware of Abby and Martha’s crimes.
Mortimer tries to keep the insanity of the family concealed, especially with his fiancé, Elaine, constantly on the horizon. Kirstin Weber plays Elaine, the attractive daughter of the virtuous Rev. Dr. Harper (Keith Scarborough). At first appearing as an innocent church girl, Weber shows that Elaine is more worldly, sassy, and witty. The chemistry between Reyes Perez and Weber was palpable. They toggle back and forth between intimacy and quarreling like a married couple.
The scene becomes more chaotic when Teddy Brewster, Mortimer’s other brother, inserts himself into the mischief. Played by Garth Porter, Teddy is likable and kindhearted. Porter brings hysterics while racing up a flight of stairs screaming “CHARGE!” The play progresses with more misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and hilarious antics as secrets come to the surface.
Standout cameo performances include Ricardo Padilla as Officer O’Hara and Esther Wells as Lt. Rooney. Playing the goofy wannabe playwright, Padilla brings an infectious energy to well-intentioned, oblivious Rooney. Not appearing until the last act, Wells captures the essence of Lt. Rooney’s stoicism through focused gestures, mannerisms, and commanding vocal inflections to convey strength and authority. Lt. Rooney has little patience for her clueless cops, specifically the incompetent Officer Klein (Alyse Pollock) and Officer Brothy (Suzette Farnum).
Tech director Vince Worthington deserves high praise for his intelligent use of space by successfully meeting the challenge of Kesselring’s set directions. Despite the lack of height at Rooftop’s venue, the team created the illusion of a two-level set with the use of platforms, archways, and multiple entrances. Rooftop Productions blackbox-like performance space creates an intimate experience enabling the audience to be right in front of the action. The choice to not use microphone amplification was appropriate as all performers can easily be heard and understood. This intimacy and usage of live sound create an intimate experience making the audience feel they are in the middle of the Brewster home. Period costumes were designed by Charlynn Knighton and light/sound cues were operated by Sydney Ferris.
Seeing a production of Arsenic and Old Lace is a must for any theater enthusiast. The combination of dark comedy and suspense created by Rooftop Players captivates audiences from start to finish. The compelling storyline, masterfully crafted by the playwright, navigates a fine line between horror and hilarity with unparalleled finesse. Moreover, Rooftop Productions boasts a stellar cast. From the quick-witted dialogue to the unique performance space, every aspect of this production has been meticulously put together to create an immersive atmosphere. Besides, you must learn the fate of Mr. Gibbs (Bob Jordan) and Mr. Witherspoon (Curtis Lewis) at the hands of the Brewster sisters!
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes including one 15-minute intermission and one 5-minute intermission.
Christine Maxted serves as the theater arts teacher at Gainesville High School, a member of the Educational Theatre Alliance, and a member of the Critics and Awards Program (CAPPIES) steering committee. She has served as adjunct theater faculty for Northern Virginia Community College and as a guest lecturer at George Mason University. She holds an MA in Theatre Education.