“Insanity doesn’t just run in the Brewster family – it practically gallops, as one member puts it.”
I was extremely excited when I saw that the Little Theatre of Norfolk had announced “Arsenic and Old Lace” on the season slate. It is one of my favorite shows, and despite it being such a popular production, one I have never seen live. Who wouldn’t want to see a show where the main character is a theatre critic? In this spectacular farce, created by Joseph Kesselring, the script alone is well worth the price of admission.
The story has us following Martha and Abby Brewster. They live with their nephew Teddy, who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt. If that is not enough, they have a terrible secret — one they are unashamed of and share with their other nephew Mortimer, who happens to be a theatre critic. Their secret, the killing of lonely older gentleman, is made all the more farcical in that the bodies are buried by brother Teddy, who is digging the Panama Canal in the basement. Long lost brother Jonathan Brewster comes home to add his own issues to the family dynamic and the entire Brewster household is thrown into utter disarray.
Director Kelly Gilliam has helmed a truly wonderful farce. She manages to keep the play moving, foregoing the break between Act II and Act III, yet never making the show feel rushed. Gilliam’s staging is wonderful and Donna Lawheed’s set is an absolutely perfect two story room with deep maroon walls. Such a dark area was lit beautifully by Heather Butterbaugh’s lighting design. Her design brought out the best in the intricate set and brought the costumes to life.
I was particularly taken with two windows on the set. They were extremely beautiful and lit in such a realistic way that they gave the room such personality. Kate Given did a wonderful job with costumes, my favorite being the “service” outfits that the sisters wore. Each costume fit its character perfectly and they definitely worked in the overall scheme of the story. The costumes were accentuated beautifully with some wonderful hair design and wig work by Kate Given and Kathy Hinson. While not as prop heavy as some farces, Robin Martineau did a remarkable job fitting the room and characters with their props. Each felt like it belonged in the house, the centerpiece being a wonderful tea set — and, of course, what murder mystery would be complete without a dead body or two? I feel that a special note must be made about John Roberts’ sound design, particularly around the pre-show speech. It was inventive and cute. I was treated to a theatre first where I listened to the entire opening speech and actually laughed! The pre-show music and intermission music definitely helped set the mood as well.
The cast is a fine and balanced cast; however, the old spinster aunts require special attention. Ann Heywood and Candy Dennis play Abby and Martha Brewster, respectively. Abby is a pragmatic and sensible serial killer, while Martha is a bit more sweet and naïve almost bordering on dotty. As a pair, they are irresistibly sweet and lovable, and two actresses treat us to such a wonderful performance, with impeccable comedic timing. The pair’s matter of fact banter over their truly horrific killing spree is some of the best moments in the production. I truly cannot say enough about how wonderful these two were. Knowing full well their back stories, I would love to have them as my aunts. Their nephew Mortimer is played by Nathan Jacques in an extremely comical and anxious sort of way. He bounces around a set full of inept police and cool killers creating much of the drama and anxiety himself. Jacques use some great facial expressions to really bring his character to life — this is evident when he is tied up and gagged. We are only treated to his eyes and he uses them extremely well in this scene.
Despite this story being about two serial killers, the real villain of the story is played by James Bryan. His portrayal of Jonathan Brewster is entertainingly ghoulish as the villainous brother. The character is non-sympathetic and serious about his body count, treating it as a contest. To this Mr. Bryan combines the farcical nature of the play, exaggerated stiff upper body turns, with a menacing glare and demeanor. Brewster’s sidekick, Dr. Einstein, is played by Benjamin Titter. This Dr. Einstein is a plastic surgeon, and should not be confused with the more famous physicist. He has the best accent in the production and it never wavers. Einstein manages some witty repertoire and deft physical comedy, all while taking swigs from a bottomless flask. His entrance through the window garnered one of the biggest reactions in the evening. The only failing of the script is that Teddy Brewster is not on stage enough. Steven Meeks’s portrayal of the brother who thinks that he is President Teddy Roosevelt was fun and convincing. From his digging in the Panama Canal, disposing of yellow fever victims, and his bugle playing, every moment he spends on stage is full of enormous amounts of energy and laughs. Bully!
The rest of the cast turns out an admirable performance. Leigh Stenger plays Elaine Harper, the love interest of Mortimer. She has some of the wittiest lines in the play and is able to deliver them with great sarcasm. Nathaniel Barton, Mike Dunavan, John C. Roberts and George Plank play the required affable, if somewhat clueless, police officers. In this case, they see someone tied up and are told about bodies in the cellar several times before they finally believe the stories. Even then Lt. Rooney, played by Mike Dunavan, allows one of the suspects to escape after calling in his description while the suspect is standing next to him. Shoddy police work is required of most officers in farces, and these gentlemen played their parts to perfection! Anthony Fotinos turns in a nice performance as the Reverend Dr. Harper, who also happens to be Elaine’s father. While his time on stage is short, he definitely makes the most of it along with Jonathan Hite, who escapes death at the hands of the sisters…or does he?
This show did have some issues with energy. At times, it was spotty. There were several characters that were exuding such a high level of energy that anyone who did not come close to their level was extremely noticeable. One of the other issues was relationships. There was such a good relationship between the sisters and Jonathan and Einstein, that there was a noticeable distance between Elaine and Mortimer. In their defense, Mortimer is very on and off again with regards to his feelings, however, I did not find their love believable when they were supposed to be on. This was noticeable in one scene as Elaine was off reading a book seemingly disengaged while important events were taking place onstage. A show like this takes an enormous amount of cohesiveness and I am sure that will solidify as the run progresses.
Bodies are switched, identities mistaken. The plot ties itself in a complicated knot, and then magically sorts itself out. We leave this show wondering if we have been duped by the playwright into sympathizing with two endearing old serial killers, or heaven forbid a theatre critic! Either way, we definitely left laughing.