Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
I had the pleasure this past weekend of taking time out to relax and laugh at Richardson Theatre Centre’s production of the classic dark farce Arsenic and Old Lace. From set design and costumes to sound and lighting, Director Rachael Lindley, cast and crew presented a tight, polished production with some first-class onstage talent.
Joseph Kesselring’s play is about Mortimer Brewster, a theatre critic who is newly engaged to Elaine Harper, the preacher’s daughter living next door to the family home where live his sweet, charitable aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster. The hilarity ensues when Mortimer visits his aunts and discovers a dead body in the window seat and credits it to his seemingly harmless older brother, Teddy (who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt). Instead, Mortimer learns that his aunts have made a “charity” of poisoning lonely old gentlemen and burying them in the cellar, which they call Panama. They’ve recruited Teddy as their accomplice, who is convinced he is digging locks in Panama for yellow-fever victims. The plot, and the comedy, thickens when Mortimer’s older brother Jonathan comes home with a new face that “looks like Boris Karloff,” accompanied by a creepy alcoholic surgeon and a murder record to match that of his aunts…and another dead body to store in the window seat.
When it was written, Kesselring’s play was set in Brooklyn, in The Present. It opened on Broadway in 1941 and was such a hit that, after it finished its Broadway run, Warner Bros. produced the now-classic film version starring Cary Grant, directed by Frank Capra, which was released in 1944. Richardson Theatre Centre’s play is set in its original 1941 setting, in the home of the Brewster sisters.
Kevin Paris’s set design made excellent use of the space with vintage furnishings from the 1930s. The warm, rich colors and fabrics he chose brought me back to the warm, antique-filled home of my own sweet elderly Aunt Florence. Authentic, high-quality tailored period costumes further established the pre-war setting.
Lighting Designer Richard Stephens, Sr. created a basic, effective and manageable lighting scheme, mostly for practicality. When action occurred in the dark, blue lighting was used to good effect. Wyatt Moore was excellent in the tech booth operating both light and sound, keeping transitions smooth even in scenes where cues overlapped, as in the scenes where the action occurs in the dark.
Rusty Harding’s sound design added another layer of realism and humor to the play. Along with classic big band jazz recordings playing pre-show, post-show and during intermission, he added a bit of camp here and there with a few familiar creepy tunes. In addition, the sound mix itself could not have been better. The actors projected their lines beautifully and with strong articulation, so the overhead stage mics were hardly needed.
Among a cast that ranged from beginner to seasoned professional, several performances stood out. Karen Jordan and Fradonna Griffin were fantastic as the charitably homicidal Abby and Martha Brewster, Budd Mahan was utterly convincing as the murderous Jonathan Brewster, and Richard Stephens Jr. fully embraced his Teddy Roosevelt alter-ego. I was also impressed with Ben Richardson as Officer O’Hara, the policeman/over-eager aspiring playwright.
Fradonna Griffin’s Martha was the perfect “cute little old lady.” Her costume, hairstyle, expressions, posture, voice…everything was exactly right. She brought most of the physical comedy for the pair. The great lines, though, went to Karen Jordan as the more dominant Abby Brewster. The two together were hilarious, especially when playing against Josh Bangle as Mortimer Brewster.
Josh Bangle was young for the part of Mortimer, but he did such a great job in the role that I didn’t mind this. He was particularly strong (and seemed to be more at home) in comedic scenes. His incredulity at all that was happening around him highlighted the irony in every situation and the nuanced absurdity in every character.
Budd Mahan played Jonathan Brewster. In contrast to Bangle, Mahan may have been a bit too old for the part. However, his deep gravelly voice and slow, even speech combined with his intimidating height made him amazing in the role. Add to that his strong acting chops, and his performance more than makes up for the unlikely age difference between Jonathan, Teddy and Mortimer Brewster.
Jonathan’s accomplice, Dr. Einstein, was played by Rusty Harding. Though entertaining in his characterization, I found that Harding’s clean-cut appearance and gray suit made him look more like a Baptist deacon than an alcoholic surgeon and murderer. If he had looked more the part, perhaps he would have been more believable. In a nod to the film version, in which his character was played by Peter Lorre, Harding adopted a similar accent to Lorre’s. Unfortunately, the accent was uneven and further brought to question the plausibility of his character. Still, Peter Lorre…I mean, who could touch that performance? Bravo to Harding for the attempt!
Julia Kendry was a dynamic Elaine Harper, commanding attention whenever she was onstage. Sometimes, perhaps, too much. Her lilting voice, amorous affectations and giddy innuendos made me think Mortimer must be just as crazy as his family. Who could bear such a woman? With that said, I must admit this minister’s daughter was exactly as coquettish as the script demanded, however annoying that might have been.
Another character who literally commanded attention—with a trumpet—was played by Richard Stephens Jr, who was delightful in the role of Teddy Brewster, the sweet, childlike brother with delusions of grandeur. He carried a toy sword made of wood, consistently interacting with others and with his toys as though he was in his own made-up reality. Even when he had no lines, he was always in character, pacing around with bravado and standing proudly with chest and chin up.
The cast was rounded out with ensemble members who each added a lively bit of humor to their scenes. The Reverend Harper and his wife were played by Lloyd Webb and Elaine Erback, who each played dual roles as Lieutenant Rooney of the Brooklyn police and Mrs. Witherspoon, superintendent of Happy Dale Sanitarium, respectively. Richard Stephens Sr. played a lonely old man and potential victim of the Brewster sisters. And finally, the kind-hearted but incompetent police were played by Dan Slay and Jon Doege as Officer’s Brophy and Klein, Lloyd Webb as Lieutenant Rooney, and Ben Richardson as Officer O’Hara.
Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is one of the funniest plays I’ve seen to date. With a witty script and skillful direction, Richardson Theatre Centre presents an entertaining production that is sure to provide lots of laughs.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
Richardson Theatre Centre, 518 W. Arapaho Rd, Suite 113, Richardson, TX 75080
Now through February 19, 2017
Thursday performances are at 7:30 p.m. and cost $20. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. and cost $22. Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. cost $20. For more info, visit RTC’s website at http://www.richardsontheatrecentre.net, or call 972-699-1130.