Some strong performers highlight ambience of gentility in Arsenic and Old Lace

Reviewed by Iris Winston

 

Photo: Maria Vartanova

A small glass of elderberry wine seems an appropriately genteel alcoholic drink for two kindly old ladies to serve potential lodgers — except when it is laced with arsenic and spiced with strychnine and cyanide.

Even those who have never seen a stage production or of Joseph Kesselring’s 76-year-old dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace or watched the Frank Capra movie (shot in 1941 and released in 1944) are familiar with parts of the tale of the charitable Brewster sisters, who dispatched lonely gentlemen and then gave them a Christian burial in the basement of their home.

They might not know that Kesselring’s inspiration for his hit comedy — it played on Broadway for 1,333 performances in 1941 — was inspired by the case of Connecticut nursing home administrator and serial killer Amy Archer-Gilligan, believed to have poisoned more than 50 victims, including her second husband.

Over the years, Arsenic and Old Lace has had numerous stage revivals as Abby and Martha continue their murder spree and employ their nephew Teddy (he imagines he is president Teddy Roosevelt) to dig graves for the “yellow fever” victims and bury them in the Panama Canal (aka the basement). Meanwhile, his even crazier and far more malignant brother Jonathan — who looks eerily like actor Boris Karloff — disrupts the household routine by showing up with his accomplice, Dr. Einstein. (The in-joke here is that Karloff played the role in the original Broadway production.) The remaining nephew, Mortimer, a reluctant theatre critic and seemingly the only sane member of the Brewster family, is left to deal with the crisis while trying to pursue his romance with the vicar’s daughter.

The most successful aspects of the current production at Ottawa Little Theatre, directed by Brian Cano, are four of the performances from the 13-strong cast. As the sisters, Sarah Hearn and Janet Banigan are very much in tune with each other, Hearn as the practical organizer and Banigan as her frothier counterpoint. Kurt Shantz, impressively different from his recent characterizations in Torch Song Trilogy, Glorious and Imaginary Lives, delivers a capable Mortimer, after a somewhat stilted beginning. Meanwhile, Charles Laroche is highly effective and very amusing as “face changer” Dr. Einstein.

 

The rest of the group offer adequate or better characterizations, despite periodic glitches in timing and it would have been interesting to see Paul Williamson directed into being more menacing as Jonathan.

Such technical aspects as Andrea Vecsei’s “stylized Victorian parlour” round out the ambience of gentility, completing the contrast to bodies in the window seat and the basement.

Reviewed by  Iris Winston. Photo by Maria Vartanova

Arsenic and Old Lace continues at Ottawa Little Theatre to November 11.

By Joseph Kesselring

Ottawa Little Theatre

Directed by Brian Cano

Set: Andrea Vecsei

Lighting: Larry Davies

Sound: Bradford MacKinlay

Costumes: Gillian Siddiqui

 

Cast:

Abby Brewster……………………………………………………Sarah Hearn

Martha Brewster…………………………………………………..Janet Banigan

Teddy Brewster…………………………………………………..Dan Desmsarais

Mortimer Brewster………………………………………………..Kurt Shantz

Jonathan Brewster………………………………………………..Paul Williamson

Rev. Harper………………………………………………………Stephen Beneteau

Elaine Harper……………………………………………………..Mary Whalen

Dr. Einstein……………………………………………………….Claude Laroche

Officer Brophy…………………………………………………….Howard Kaplan

Officer Klein……………………………………………………….Ryan Van Buskirk

Officer O’Hara…………………………………………………….George Koutsos

Lieutenant Rooney…………………………………………………Philippe Gagnon

Mr. Gibbs………………………………………………………….Bill Milner

 

 

 


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