SANDY — Since the 1941 premier of Joseph Kesselring’s farcical romp through the darker side of comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace has been a fan favorite and one of the most widely performed plays in theater to this day. The production currently underway by the Sandy Arts Guild is the perfect example why.
Arsenic and Old Lace tells the story of Mortimer, a freshly engaged drama critic who returns to the home of his aunts one night only to discover a dreadful secret that could ruin the entire family. Things are complicated further when his evil brother Jonathan shows up, ready to stir up both trouble and old resentments. Mortimer must keep his sanity as he struggles to mend the situation, keep his fiance happy, and stop his insane brother Teddy from blowing his bugle.
Starting the play out as the character Aunt Abbey Brewster is Rosalie Richards, whose sweetness and command of the stage are immediately noticeable. She, along with her counterpart Heather Monson (playing Martha Brewster), provide the play with a sense of home and family, which is hilariously shot to pieces once their secret is revealed. The two actresses had great chemistry, with Richards taking the lead and Monson acting as the eccentric anchor to Richards’s light patter.
Playing Elaine Harper was Nichole Omana, who had an old-fashioned sensibility and a strong presence, perhaps a bit stronger than Mike Nilsson as Mortimer Brewster, who played opposite her. Nilsson seemed to have trouble making eye contact with the other actors, instead looking out at the audience or somewhere on the stage, which was confusing and caused the energy of the play’s action to drop somewhat. Nilsson would flip from emotion to emotion without transition or deliberation, and leaned on the performances of stronger actors, like Richards, to reel him back in. His best moments, however, came when he stood up to the imposing presence of Dru as Jonathan Brewster, his brother. Nilsson seemed a bit young throughout the play, probably because he looked like a boy in his large suit. Nilsson acted more impetuous and immature than unnerved. However, in the scenes where he opposed Dru, he played his character a bit stronger and seemed more like an adult.
Dru, as the deliciously wicked Jonathan Brewster, was not only villainous, but also very funny, which was a take on Jonathan I had never seen before. A deft improviser, Dru was able to blend in his ripe comedic timing as a refreshing offset to the aunts’ particular brand of madness. Dru was also responsible for makeup in the show. His own makeup lent itself to Jonathan’s character and also to the fact that a running joke in the play is that he looks like Frankenstein’s monster as portrayed in films by Boris Karloff, a soft spot for Jonathan.
One highlight of the show was Christopher P. Angelos, who portrayed Dr. Einstein, Jonathan’s mousy sidekick. His frenetic energy and physical comedy sparkled alongside Dru’s more heavy demeanor, providing the play with fun and hilarity. He, more than any other actor, had the audience rolling with uproarious laughter. He didn’t rely on Kesselring’s sharp dialogue to entertain, but performed as a true comedian.
There were also several side characters in the show, some forgettable, others with stand-out performances, like the eager Officer O’Hara, played by Michael Dodge, and the amusingly boisterous Teddy Brewster, played by Steve Coombs. Coombs took on his role with gusto, and could have gone even bigger with his performance. The raucous interruptions delivered by his trumpet blowing and proclamations of “CHAAAAARGE!” as he ran up the stairs to his room were both surprising and welcome, a nice way to break up the play and to wake up the audience in the middle of more slow-moving scenes. At the end of the evening, Coombs left me wishing that there was more of Teddy in the play.
Under the direction of Laura Heugly, this delightful, rollicking show comes to life with playful energy and rapid-fire pacing. She, along with her set designer Sonja Ervin, have come up with creative ways to utilize the small space of the theater and, though this causes the audience to turn around for small bits of the action, I was impressed with how they managed to stage it. The stage was set up so that the aisles of the theater became a part of the house: the entry way, the kitchen, etc. I found this setup very innovative and clever.
Heugly seems in tune to Kesselring’s script the way the author intended it, and she guided the cast along in a lovely effort to reproduce his brilliant play. She seems a capable director due to her ability to keep her actors constantly behaving with clear motivations, sometimes a difficult task. Some of the choices Heugly made were very creative, like having Jonathan trussed up and gagged at the end of the play, a mesh colander over his mouth, dragged along on a dolly by disgruntled and exhausted policemen. She also paid attention to the necessity of physicality in the show, adding pratfalls down staircases and wrestling matches with dead bodies which kept the audience in hysterics. The eccentricity of the plot and characters was skillfully executed along with the swift tempo of the events that make up the story of the dramatic critic who finds himself in a most peculiar pickle.
Ervin’s set decoration, also, lent itself wonderfully to the atmosphere of the production, with careful attention to detail and deliberate choices, like the family portrait on the wall that added a bit of fun to the whole thing. Costumes, with the exception of Mortimer’s suit, which was too big for him, were also very well selected by Chad McBride, who seemed to have a very specific color scheme for each character in mind, and it worked nicely.
This Sandy Arts Guild play, produced by Karla Marsden, is, all in all, a marvelously enjoyable take on the classic work, and is appropriate for all ages. I am very pleased to see this play, a personal favorite, in such good hands. I, for one, will be recommending it to my friends and family.