‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ kills at The Meadow Brook
ROCHESTER, Mich.— Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those plays that almost everyone has seen some version of, whether it’s was a wobbly high school performance or the wonderful Frank Capra film with Carry Grant. With its odd blend of sinister mystery, dark comedy and off-balance romance, it’s an audience favorite and a perfect season opener for Meadow Brook, which habitually serves something Halloween-appropriate for October.
Accommodating our review schedule, MBT graciously allowed us to catch a preview performance. Of course, any company staging a play as popular as this one must be confident in its quality, as comparisons to previous productions are inevitable. Meadow Brook Theatre has nothing to worry about – this show stands up and stands out.
Directed by Artistic Director Travis W. Walter, this staging of Arsenic and Old Lace offers superlative production values, a cast that boasts some of Michigan’s finest actors, and an authentically broad, farcical style that plays true to the 1939 script.
Those not familiar with the murderous plot of this dark comedy get their first clue as the house lights dim and the audio builds to the strains of Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette,” the theme of the old Alfred Hitchcock show. The play opens in the sumptuous Victorian home of elderly sisters Abby (Mary Robin Roth) and Martha Brewster (Ruth Crawford). Abby is pouring tea for their neighbor, the Rev. Dr. Harper (Chip DuFord) and Teddy(Peter Prouty), one of three nephews raised by the maiden aunties. Although it is 1941, the two sisters favor elaborate gowns and a gracious manner of living that harkens back to a more genteel era. No one seems to mind their adorable eccentricities, or the fact that nephew Teddy believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. Even the local police play along, standing and saluting when Teddy enters, although they do warn the sisters that complaints have been filed. Apparently the neighbors have been frightened by Teddy sounding bugle charges in the middle of the night. Teddy may be nuts, but it’s a benign sort of madness.
After the Reverend leaves, they are visited by his daughter Elaine (Olivia Ursu). She is meeting up with the aunts’ youngest nephew, Mortimer Brewster (Tim Dolan), a prominent theatre critic who lives in the city but visits regularly. (There are plenty of meta jokes about how much Mortimer resents sitting through tedious, unrealistic comedies and his tendency to eviscerate every play he reviews, whether he’s actually seen it or not.) We quickly learn that Mortimer and Elaine enjoy a mutual infatuation and plan to wed soon.
So far, mere minutes into Act I, this could be any wacky romantic farce. But when Elaine dashes next door to check in with her father, Mortimer discovers the body of a recently deceased elderly man in the window seat. He quickly assumes that Teddy’s madness has taken a darker turn; after all, their long-lost older brother Jonathan was a sociopath whose diabolical habits forced him to leave town. It must be an inherited trait. But when Mortimer tries to break the news to his dear aunties, he learns a truth that is even more unsettling. Among their many charitable works, the dear aunts have taken up the cause of lonely old men whose troubles can be erased with a little arsenic-laced elderberry wine. His aunts explain that the corpse in the window seat is “our gentleman,” waiting for a good Methodist burial in the cellar, where Teddy is digging another lock for the Panama Canal.
As Mortimer realizes that madness runs in the Brewster bloodline (“sometimes it gallops”), he feels obligated to break things off with Elaine. But first, he has to figure out what to do with his homicidal aunties and the dead guy in the window seat.
What could be worse? As if on cue, Jonathan, the sinister, oldest Brewster brother (Michael Brian Ogden) and his accomplice Dr. Einstein (Phil Powers) enter the scene. Following a prison breakout, they are on the run, hauling their own fresh corpse, and needing a place to lie low.
As with any good farce – and this is an excellent, albeit unusual farce – a rapid succession of plot twists and broad physical humor accelerate the laugh-levels. The cast is a delight, with veterans who know how to milk any scene for optimum hilarity. Ruth Crawford and Mary Robin Roth make us fall in love with the Brewster sisters, who may be crazy, but are wickedly wise, too.
In addition to those mentioned, the stellar company features Tobin Hissong (Officer Brophy), Thomas D. Mahard (Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Witherspoon), Mark Rademacher (Officer O’Hara), and Mike Vultaggio (Officer Klein).
This is a funny, funny play. But it is also worth seeing for the spectacular scenic design by Kristen Gribbin, who fills the resplendent Brewster home with all the right details. The set is beautifully lit by Kerro Knox 3. Costumes by Corey Collins are not only gorgeous, but are designed to lend context to the story. The aunties lush gowns were probably new at the turn of the century, while the young people sport the latest in WWII-era fashions. Even Teddy parades a variety of authentic costumes, from his dignified frock coat, to his pith helmet and khakis, to his flowing nightshirt bedecked with military pins. Spooky music and sound design are courtesy of Mike Duncan. Terry W. Carpenter, as stage manager, keeps it all running like clockwork.
There’s a good reason this play has remained popular through the decades. And with this lavish production, you’d be crazy to miss it.
Read more about Arsenic and Old Lace 10/03–10/28
Read more about Meadow Brook Theatre