Bring out your dead

Butte College opens Arsenic & Old Lace in Paradise

PICK YOUR POISON John-Steven Swim and Douglas Anderson (front, left to right) play brothers Mortimer and Jonathan Brewster, respectively, in Butte College’s spring production, <i>Arsenic &amp; Old Lace</i>. Background (from left), Elizabeth Graham, Queena Delany and Patricia Lindsey.

PICK YOUR POISON John-Steven Swim and Douglas Anderson (front, left to right) play brothers Mortimer and Jonathan Brewster, respectively, in Butte College’s spring production, Arsenic & Old Lace. Background (from left), Elizabeth Graham, Queena Delany and Patricia Lindsey.

Photo By Tom Angel

On an appropriately dark and stormy Monday night, I sat in on a dress rehearsal for the Butte College production of Arsenic & Old Lace at the Paradise Performing Arts Center. The curtain rose, revealing a sumptuous sitting room, complete with authentic looking antique furniture and some lovely Duke Ellington tunes setting the tone.

The play is set in Brooklyn in the 1940s, and as usual set designer Dave Beasley has created a work of art. The soaring backdrop depicts the rear wall of the sitting room/dining area of the Brewster sisters, a couple of spinsters who live with their aging nephew next door to the neighborhood cemetery and the preacher’s house. The set represents the interior of the two-story house, but Beasley has cleverly added four steeply peaked A-frame roofs to the upper portion of the rear wall, creating a dollhouse feeling of looking in on a room through the fourth wall. The walls are sponge-painted sea-foam green, and the warm chestnut and cocoa-toned woodwork and furniture create a pleasant palette of color, which is complimented nicely by Nancie Willis’s lovely ‘40s-style costumes.

This play is one of my favorites, and director Dawn McConnell has assembled a competent cast and a stellar crew for this production, which appears to have the makings of a very entertaining show.

I love the quirky characters; the dialogue is clever and well-written, and the plot is hilarious. It is hard to go wrong with this show. The story follows the antics of the Brewster family, consisting of the two spinster aunties, who like to poison lonely gentlemen as their form of community service, and the romance between their favorite nephew Mortimer, who is in love with the preacher’s daughter, Elaine. All this is complicated by the return of Jonathan, the estranged black sheep of the family.

Unfortunately, according to McConnell, this crew has had a bit of bad luck: Patricia Lindsey, the actress playing Abby Brewster, one of the sweet old ladies, has laryngitis, so McConnell was sitting on the sidelines reading her lines while the actress mouthed the words and went through the motions of her part.

The show must go on, however, and this show has a number of things to recommend it. Giving especially fine performances are Douglas Anderson as Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer’s sadistic brother, and Benjamin Allen as his comic sidekick, Dr. Hermann Einstein. (Allen, who used excellent bow-legged, fawning physicality and a German accent, recently impressed with a virtuoso array of characters in the Blue Room’s brilliant Nickel and Dimed.) Quentin St. George bellows and charges with mighty gusto as Teddy Brewster, who thinks he’s President Theodore Roosevelt.

John-Steven Swim, who plays Mortimer Brewster, has the resonant voice and handsome demeanor of a leading man. He seemed quite at home with the romantic moments opposite a perky Queena Delany as Elaine Harper. The other little old lady, Martha Brewster, is played by Elizabeth Graham, who fortunately had full use of her vocal instrument.

There are plenty of great lines and classic moments. Mortimer, a stage critic, races out the door at one point and says, “I can save time if I write my review on the way to the theater and leave after the first act.” Or, take Martha’s special recipe used to welcome prospective tenants: “One gallon elderberry wine (from berries grown in the cemetery, of course), a teaspoon of arsenic, a half teaspoon of strychnine and a pinch of cyanide.” Certainly a recipe to die for, one that no one seems to be able to refuse, setting up many funny scenarios.

Although a few of the supporting cast members need a little more rehearsal to be ready to open the show Wednesday, the production seems to be shaping up nicely.