Janet Essenpreis, David Myers, and Debbie King-Raque in Arsenic & Old Lace.
Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner.
Arsenic & Old Lace
By Joseph Kesselring
Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider
Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley
Entire contents are copyright © 2016 Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.
Arsenic & Old Lace is arguably one of the most successful non-musical stage comedies of all time. It was born of the same generation of Broadway classics that gave us gems like Harvey, You Can’t Take it With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Skin of Our Teeth, and many others. But Arsenic went a bit further, adding a sense of danger, murder and mayhem into the comedic mix. The result is a farcical black comedy that hasn’t aged a day since it opened in 1941 on Broadway and continues to be one of the most popular licensed plays amongst regional theater companies. And did I mention it is hysterically funny?
Largely popularized by the1944, Frank Capra-directed film version that starred Cary Grant, the play is currently getting new life in a lively production at the Derby Dinner Playhouse. It tells the story of the Brewster family, of whom only nephew Mortimer (Brian Bowman) seems to have escaped the family’s homicidal insanities. His brother Teddy (J.R. Stuart) believes he is Teddy Roosevelt, his brother Jonathan (David Myers) is a murderous gangster surgically altered to resemble Boris Karloff, and his sweet aunts Abby and Martha (Debbie King-Raque and Janet Essenpreiss) like to murder lonely old men and bury them in the cellar. Mortimer is planning to marry his sweetheart Elaine (Tina Jo Wallace) but his plans are thrown into turmoil when he discovers the truth about his family’s activities.
Typical for a Derby Dinner show, the cast is first rate. Easily Stuart as the maniacal Teddy gives the best performance. He steals every scene he’s in; whether he exits with a loud roar of “CHAAAAAAAARGE!!!!” or is blowing a bugle in the middle of the night, he is an absolute delight. King-Raque and Essenpreiss are adorable as the deceptively sweet aunts (although both actresses are a bit young for the roles – that’s what makeup & costumes are for!). Myers is suitably menacing as the vengeful Jonathan, but his sidekick, alcoholic mob plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Peter Riopelle) doesn’t quite seem to be as inebriated as the role calls for. Bowman manages to wring a few laughs out of his role as Mortimer, no small accomplishment considering how outrageous the rest of the characters are.
Director Bekki Jo Schneider keeps things moving at a very brisk pace; any missed timing would kill this type of show but she has nailed it. Ron Riall’s impressive set perfectly evokes the 1940’s mansion drawing room it is meant to represent, and it’s all nicely filled out by Sharon Murray Harrah’s period perfect costume designs. Kudos as well to nicely atmospheric lighting and sound designs by Alexa Holloway and David Nelson, respectively.
I always expect quality from a Derby Dinner production, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed here. This is an excellent production that shows that the old chestnuts still have life in them, and one of the best times I’ve had as an audience member in quite a while.
Featuring Brian Bowman, Timm Charlton, Janet Essenpreiss, Bill Hanna, Debbie King-Racque, David Myers, Peter Riopelle, J.R. Stuart, Timothy Stucky, Tina Jo Wallace, and Cary Wiger.
Arsenic & Old Lace
May 18 – June 26, 2016
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129(812) 288-8281
Craig Nolan Highley has been active in local theatre as an actor, director and producer for more than 12 years. He has worked with Bunbury Theater, Clarksville Little Theatre, Finnigan Productions, Louisville Repertory Company, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Co., and WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre among others. He has been a member of the Wayward Actors Company since 2006, and currently serves as their Board President. Craig’s reviews have also appeared in TheatreLouisville and Louisville Mojo.