“Arsenic and Old Lace,” which ran from Feb. 13-16 2020, made for the perfect Anti-Valentine’s Day outing for the theatre loving couple or individual. It is a combination of macabre and farcical dark comedy which revolves around the antagonist, Mortimer Brewster who must confront his morality as he comes to terms with his long established and beloved family being outed as clinically insane and homicidal. All the while being interrupted by his uncle who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt, and is digging “locks” for the Panama Canal in the cellar. The play comes to a head as Mortimer debates whether to risk continuing the line of family illness by marrying the love of his life, Elaine Harper. Playwright Joseph Kesselring is able to satirize charity, poke fun at the conventions of theatrical performance and scriptwriting all the while maintaining a somber theme.
The Piedmont Players did the impossible during their run of Arsenic & Old Lace by taking a beloved classic and making it fresh and new for each theatre lover that packed the house.
The cast and crew noticeably enjoyed themselves as they took on their roles in the spirited and unconventional home of the charitable old Brewster sisters. Arsenic and Old Lace, set in the 1940’s features Abby and Martha Brewster who run an old style Bed and Breakfast for older, lonely gentlemen and their nephews, Mortimer, a harsh theatre cristic, and Jonathon, a prodigal son of whom everyone is afraid.
Amidst the many meta conversations about the sacrilege of the theatre, the audience travels through a whirlwind 24 hours in the Brewster home as they follow the unraveling normalcy that Mortimer has come to know as his family. Aunts Abby and Martha, played by Mickey Walters and Kaitlin Conners respectively, are portrayed as the sweet, yet spirited “wine aunts” that everyone in the audience will immediately connect with an aunt of their own. This image quickly dissolves as the elderberry wine, and the women who serve it, show their true bouquet.
There is certainly a reason the stage play has stood the test of time. Throughout the duration of the three act play, the audience was not only kept on their toes, but kept laughing at the numerous jabs at preacher’s daughters, religion, and the art of theatre, which were a treat for avid patrons of the art. From the opening curtain to the final bow, the actors are fully in gear to catch the audience by surprise as the Brewster sisters deliver their final life-changing twist.
Director John Spiegel and Assistant Director Taylor Shirley stayed true to the essence of the play with their casting. The actors were able to capture not only the humor and gravity of the script, but the roots of the characters that remain unwritten. The entire cast was up to the challenge of conveying both slapstick humor and whimsy, but also utter chaos and dark comedy. Jordan Hicks notably showed regular patrons of the Piedmont Theater his incredible range by portraying the notorious, out of control and sadistic Jonathon Brewster after being cast as the creepy MC in Cabaret during the fall. Similarly, Chelsea Harris, who played Elaine Harper, the seemingly coy preacher’s daughter, showed her dynamic acting ability after playing a convincing Kit-Kat Girl in Cabaret.
The costumes, designed by Kayla Griffin, and set, designed by John Spiegel, kept true to the time period the play is set in without being engulfed in stereotypical period dress and tchotchkes. The set both felt like a memory of grandparents and a home that could be seen today, if only the phone was updated. Costuming was done entirely by theatre students which is a testament to the education they are receiving. The materials, styles, and colors of the costumes were aided by period touches and fit seamlessly with the set. Together, they created an unmistakable and well-loved 1940’s ambiance－romantic even under the circumstances.
Arsenic and Old Lace is a must see, though the audience should beware the elderberry wine for fear of catching yellow fever.