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The Herald

Arsenic and Old Lace: A Review

By Scott Dransfield

Thing is, I hate “Arsenic and Old Lace.” At least that’s what I thought before seeing the production staged by the SVU Theater Department. Until that Friday evening, March 29, to be exact, my only exposure to the offbeat dark comedy was the old Frank Capra film of 1944 starring Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster. The movie begins with that misogynist Brewster getting married to some poor blonde whose only weapon seems to be a rather sappy puppy-dog stare, which strong arms the famous dramatic critic (famous? Are dramatic critics famous?) into a marriage he only seems to feel half-hearted about. From there, the movie drags me from annoyance to annoyance: the cute and demented old aunts, Brother Teddy crying “charge!” as he dashes up the stairs, thinking he is the real Teddy Roosevelt back in the Battle of San Juan Hill, and all those bodies that have been dispatched by some Brewster or other deposited into the window seat. Eye roll upon eye roll.

So why — and how — was my experience at SVU’s production so different? Well, this is the whole point: “Arsenic and Old Lace” is one of those cases where the stage triumphs over the screen. And once again, our tried and true theater department pulls off another great performance.

Courtesy of Leigh Stoddard.

I realized right away that Mortimer Brewster is simply a decent guy caught in the middle of a very weird family, where secrets (and, literally, skeletons) begin pouring out of the closet. What’s more, and mortifying to him, is that he is engaged to a wonderful woman who promises a life liberated from that weird family, if he can only find a way not to drag her into it. And for a while he realizes, very decently and to his credit, that he cannot drag the woman he loves into the mire. Now I’m talking about those adorable Goldhamers: Daniel and Aubrie, a married couple in real life bringing a real sense of chemistry to the stage as Mortimer Brewster and his beloved Elaine. Her character especially gives us a welcome upgrade over the Elaine Harper portrayed in the Capra film by Priscilla Lane. She’s strong and sensible, and somehow perseveres through the madness.

Other memorable performances also come in twos: William Gardner’s scary-beyond-belief Jonathan Brewster, a murderer on the run who has undergone numerous plastic surgeries to stay undercover, and his surgeon-companion, the sniveling and drunken Dr. Einstein played convincingly by Carter Gorham, who has worked on Brewster’s face, usually while intoxicated, numerous times. The running joke is that “Jonny,” originally played on stage by Boris Karloff, keeps reminding the other characters of, you guessed it, Boris Karloff. May I say that William Gardner out-Borris Karloffs Borris Karloff? The other dynamic duo is that pair of aunts, rendered by Kinsey Cluff and Tara Jones. One of those dear aunts, who serve up a delicious elderberry wine-and-poison cocktail to lonely old gentlemen who need the consolation of lasting peace and a moving funeral service, insists to Mortimer with her simple old lady wisdom, just as he’s catching on to the truth of it all, “we have a right to our own little secrets.” Oh, do we? Irony of ironies! This was the best line of the play, and whichever aunt it was who spoke it, nailed it.

For good measure, there’s one more Brewster — Teddy, played by Layne MacPherson, sacrificing his good looks to the demands of the theater with a mustache — who unwittingly carries out all the dirty work under the delusion that the yellow fever has carried off one more victim. Where would we be without him? He serves the purposes of both murderous companies, seemingly lugging body after body down to the basement, where he digs away at the Panama Canal, and deposits the bodies in their final resting places.

In the midst of all this madness, Mortimer does the best he can to give sanity and reason its best chance, while trying to juggle his attempts at keeping love alive and surviving the menacing threats of violence from brother Jonny. All the stage business, situational ironies, and near accidental consumptions of arsenic-spiked wine are absolutely brilliant, well-timed, and as a result, hilarious.

Teddy still yells “CHARGE!” every time he bounds up the stairs, which draws attention to all those other details which made this performance excellent. The set design placed the audience smack in the middle of the Brewster living room. The sense of place, window seat and all, is absolutely essential, I think, to a successful performance of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” I think of all those who labored with Dr. Brent Hanson to construct such a convincing set: excellent work! And then there are the fabulous costumes, that create such an image. When the two old aunts come out in their funeral dresses, we are given a very concrete picture of their insanity: they delight in the solemn rituals of a funeral for the gentleman they have just murdered! In this case, the funeral dresses speak volumes.

OK, I’m pretty proud of our theater productions, along with the reputation that the best entertainment in the county is to be found on our humble Chandler Hall stage. “Arsenic and Old Lace” was no exception. For me, it brought to new life a theatrical work I thought I had already formed an opinion on.

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The Southern Virginia University Newspaper. Students can submit stories to be considered for publication by emailing theherald@svu.edu.

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