A Sharp, Peculiar Vintage: Arsenic and Old Lace at Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre
Joseph Kesselring’s superbly written 1939 dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace has long been a perennial favorite in the theatrical world for its charming mix of intrigue, slapstick comedy, danger, and romance (more or less in that order). With its novel premise, wry dialogue, and fast-moving parade of vibrant characters, it’s little wonder that, eighty years on, the show is still so highly regarded by dramatic practitioners and enthusiasts alike. Of course, the danger in doing something so well-known and respected is that, however unjustly, the viewer’s expectations are heightened by the show’s renown. That being said; (and despite some light pacing issues and questionable choices for some of the secondary characters), HART’S current production of “Arsenic” boasts an overall feeling of mirth and exhilaration that should remind viewers why they fell in love with the story in the first place.
For those unfamiliar with the basic plot, Arsenic and Old Lace tells the story of Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who, shortly after proposing to his girlfriend Elaine, discovers that his two sweet, spinster aunts have been poisoning lonely old men as a way to “ease their suffering.” In a panic, Mortimer casts about for a way to keep his aunts out of prison, but his efforts are greatly (and hilariously) hindered by Elaine’s insistent presence, frequent visits from the police, Mortimer’s brother Teddy (who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt), and his second brother Jonathan, a vicious murderer. Jonathan arrives with his frequently intoxicated accomplice Dr. Einstein, a vindictive attitude, and yet another dead body.
With dynamic characters and a plot that allows them freedom to roam, the actors have a fairly broad playing field, and use it to mostly grand advantage. The character of Mortimer Brewster must straddle a fine line between believability and comic absurdity, and Tanner Morton does it very well. His crazed movements, panicked falsetto protests, and slack-jawed moments of stunned disbelief show him to be a fine comic with wonderful timing, but he also employs the requisite warmth and concern for family which allows the viewer to empathize and root for (rather than merely laugh at) his hapless character as he stumbles through the fast-paced plot.
Diana LoVerso and Robin Reece Michaels shine as Mortimer’s aunts Abby and Martha Brewster. They portray the alarmingly frank women with a delightfully innocent ignorance completely at odds with their actions, and it makes for some startlingly funny scenes. LoVerso’s Abby has something of the teacher’s tone for lecture and correction, but can just as easily play the mischievous student with trouble on her mind and an impish smile on her lips. Meanwhile, Michael’s Martha brings an at-times achingly sweet disposition to the proceedings, and plays to perfection that somewhat doddering, yet suitably devious grandmother nobody would ever suspect. LoVerso and Michaels are especially captivating when on stage together. Fearfully huddled in a lowly-lit corner or perched like stately vultures beside a perspective victim, the actresses leave little doubt that the sisters grew up together and have learned each other’s every thought and pattern.
Sarah Thorton is another performer who plays her role with natural, seemingly effortless grace. Her Elaine Harper speaks with the quick, quirky passion of silver screen starlet and darts about with endearingly agitated purpose, but never falters in creating a living, breathing woman of strong will and passion who isn’t afraid of a little innuendo. Her Elaine is sweet and yearning, but also plucky and strong, and her character’s presence is felt even when the action shifts away from her.
Teddy Brewster is, for some, the most memorable character in the show, despite his somewhat intermittent appearances, as even against a backdrop of lunatic torturers, drunkard surgeons, and mild mannered angels of death his psychosis is particularly memorable. And actor Tony Broom captures that cheery, all-encompassing delusion with great precision and a workman-like consistency. His Teddy is comfortable and believable, if not quite as vigorous or boisterous as the “bull moose” (or more accurately a man believing himself to be the man) who once forestalled the removal of a bullet so as not to inconvenience his upcoming speech.
His aunts may be murderers, but Jonathan Brewster is certainly the darkest figure of the show, and Tyler Hulegaard portrays his character’s sinister aspect with a sickly flair that is both nearly seamless and incredibly disconcerting. A merciless opportunist who flaunts his cruelty, Jonathan can be difficult to work into the off-kilter comedy of the show, and Hulegaard pushes that jagged edge just to the point of uncomfortable realness before deftly retreating to safer ground.
Jonathan’s cohort Dr. Einstein, a well-spoken, patrician, and grounded figure as played by Tyson Redifer, has no such issue. Which is a bit of an issue in itself. Einstein is normally played with a crazed demeanor of eclectic frenzy, and though certainly new interpretations are welcome, this oddly calm and respectful character lacks sufficient justification for associating with a mean-spirited killer and torturer. Nor does this Einstein seem likely to perform drunken, reckless surgery or boast about it. Redifer plays the role with strong consistency, but the character choice, perhaps directed to offset the realness of Hulegaard’s Jonathan, feels strongly at odds with the Dr. Einstein of the script.
In a similar vein, Lt. Rooney, as played by John Knowles, seems somewhat nervous and uncertain for a bullish, fed-up police lieutenant in search of his officers, and, as is the case with Einstein, his slower pace seems counterpoint to a show filled with galloping characters, wringing hands, and rapidly performed sight gags. Luckily, Tanner Morton’s Mortimer gallops enough for everyone, and is aided later in the show by actress Erin Bickler, whose Officer O’Hara bursts onto the scene with relentlessly peppy obliviousness and proves a messy, yet lovable nuisance.
HART’s Arsenic and Old Lace is an enjoyable, speedy comedy hampered slightly by a few oddly slow character portrayals which occasionally create pacing issues, but it nonetheless provides a great deal of giddy entertainment. The core cast is wonderful, and certainly there are a few standouts among those in supporting roles. It may not be exactly the Arsenic and Old Lace you remember, but it’s certainly one worth watching.
The show runs through March 31st at HART. Tickets available here.