So my auntie’s an axe murderer
Arsenic and Old Lace
A gallon of elderberry wine, a teaspoon of arsenic, a half-teaspoon of strychnine, a pinch of cyanide and a couple of sympathetic hearts are apparently all it takes to turn two sweet old ladies into serial killers. Abby and Martha Brewster are genial septuagenarian sisters who rent an upstairs room in their home to “all alone in the world” boarders. Before the boarders usually have a chance to make it to the second story of the Brewster home, however, they are gladly accepting the dainty old ladies’ toxic elderberry brew—a sweet and tangy end to a life of tragic loneliness.
At the start of Proscenium Players’ Arsenic and Old Lace, Abby (Gail Gunderson) treats the Reverend Dr. Harper (Arthur Solomon) to tea, after just having finished her 12th kill and stuffing the body into a window seat (real-life dead body played by the chillingly corpselike Christopher Miles). When she discusses the deed with Martha (Donna Sue Hawkins), however, Martha argues it’s only the 11th kill since the first one didn’t count—the first boarder, after all, died of natural causes, and he just looked so peaceful upon croaking that the sisters decided to make it their charity to euthanize as many other lonely boarders as possible. Gunderson and Hawkins make their characters so charming, well-reasoned and sane that their horrendous actions seem paradoxically plausible and entirely suited to their sweetness.
The madness of the plot is fueled by the sisters’ long-lost nephew, Jonathan (Warren Shader), returning to their home in order to run from the cops, have his accomplice, Dr. Einstein (Dan Robbins), give him a facelift and dispose of a dead body of his own. Bodies getting mixed up and moved around comprise some of the more slapstick moments of the play.
Jonathan is exaggeratedly dark and sinister. He almost feels a little too evil for this lightheartedly grim comedy, except that the theme of the play really does deserve at least a touch of the extremely macabre. It deals with some pretty ghastly topics—dementia, pre-meditated murder and that creepy all-in-the-family brand of lunacy that makes movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so terrifying. There to balance Jonathan’s disturbing character is Robbins, who really should be on Broadway or in movies, he’s that good. He’s the likeable malicious sidekick with a strange German/Brooklyn accent who’d rather sit back, laugh and watch the unfolding folly than be part of it.
The sisters’ live-in nephew, Teddy (the hilariously moronic Jeffrey Fast), proves a handy tool to the murderesses, who use his insanity (he thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt) to convince him that he’s digging trenches (graves, to them) for the Panama Canal in their cellar. The third nephew, Mortimer Brewster (Andrew Johnson), is the only sane one in the family, yet he’s so flabbergasted by the horror of it all that he acts nuttier than the lot of them. Johnson’s panicked state is so real sometimes that it’s almost irritating; you just wish he would calm down for two seconds and catch his wits. The acting in Arsenic is solid across the board, a great compliment for a cast of 15.
Arsenic and Old Lace, pulled brilliantly together by first-time director Amy Gotham, is pure lunacy, and it requires the perfect balance of wild sanity and tranquil insanity to make it work. It’s very funny, and it’s a rare locally produced show that receives the instant standing ovation from a packed audience that Proscenium Players’ performance did. Get tickets to this one now.