OREM — There are standards of the Utah stage, titles that though oft repeated can still pack the punch and delight despite the fact that they play so frequently. Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is a title you’ll see at playhouses, arts councils and schools across the state. When a show is so popular the hipster inside of me wants to rebel, but there’s really no getting over imagining your own granny with a basement graveyard stuffed to the brim with poisoned gentleman callers.
Packed to the aisles, this production at the Hale Center Theater in Orem is a delight for theatre patrons of any age. It follows the story of Martha and Abby Brewster who’ve taken to murdering lonely old men who haven’t a relative in the world to call their own, out of compassion, of course. When their nephew Mortimer discovers the family tradition it’s all he can do to keep the lid on it and shuffle them off to the psychiatric ward. Introduce an additional murderous relative (with nowhere near the same sweet intentions) and the play takes off for a ride that has you doubting the intentions of the grey hairs down the aisle.
Jayne Luke and Karen Baird are saccharin dolls on the stage—two grannies whose sweetness seems to mask sinister motivations, but are unnervingly sincere with their intentions. Luke’s bouncing across the stage in delight for their prospective kill more echoes an excited puppy than an aging senior. Baird’s shared joy, yet controlled thrill, clearly places her in the role of the slightly older sister. Partner them with Jon Liddiard as the vibrant brother Teddy, convinced he’s living the life of Teddy Roosevelt, and it’s a family I can’t help but hope lives next door. Youth is definitely more a state of mind than a number of years.
As for Brett Merritt, who plays the nephew Mortimer—he’s the charming constant in this whirlwind of a household—his character doesn’t quite get the opportunity to catch his breath. While I hoped for a bit more “Dick van Dyke tripping over the ottoman” than “Matthew Broderick as Leopold Bluhm,” Merritt’s humor was deliciously dry when discussing the state of the theatre, but any real love interest towards the elegant Tanya M. Quinn as Elaine Harper was shallow and undermined the humor of his neglect later on.
Daniel Hessand Jason Purdie play the returning nephew Jonathan Brewster and his sidekick Dr. Einstein. Both actors do a fine job of bringing a sense of danger to the stage, but the Boris Karloff references don’t seem to translate to the crowd, and it doesn’t nearly capture the humor likely present in the original stage play when Karloff actually played the role of Jonathan.
As for design, this really isn’t the kind of show that calls for elaborate and flashy sets, lights, or props. No, for scripts like this the genius in design falls to their ability to immerse you in the world of the play without you even noticing it. Designers Bobby Swenson (scenic), Maryann Hill (costumes), Cody Swenson (lights), and Linda Hale (props) do just that. It’s the classic 1940’s home you can imagine sitting just two blocks west of Any Small Town, USA. It’s not hard to imagine playing on the floor rugs as children and listening to the latest radio mystery on the old wireless set (a.k.a. – “a radio” for the young ones out there). The colors are rich and earthy with the occasional green and blue, but nothing so prominent as the glass carafe of Elderberry wine.
I happily joined the Brewsters in the story and while nothing in the design particularly lept off the stage (save Janna Larsen’s makeup design for Jonathan Brewster), it most certainly helped me embrace the show. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a review of the Orem Hale and not see a comment on how they magically transform the space and cause the audience to forget how small it really is.
The joy of the Hale really lies in your own proximity to the actors. I absolutely love being face to face with the characters and having to make that choice to abandon myself to the play. Community theatre at its finest, the Hale in Orem brings some of the best local talent to the Utah County stage. (And the new seats aren’t too shabby either.)