Cindy Smith, G.B. Dixon, & Christy Thompkins in Arsenic and Old Lace. Photo: Little Colonel

Arsenic and Old Lace

By Joseph Kesselring
Directed by Larry Chaney

A review by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic stage comedy. Originally conceived as a thriller based on an actual case, the creators gradually realized the tale was so absurd it would play better with humor. Produced as a vehicle for horror star Boris Karloff, it premiered on Broadway in 1941 and led to a screen adaptation by none other than Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. Broadway and film history were created. A staple of community theater and countless revivals and touring companies later, the show remains a hilarious dark comedy full of twists and turns that still resonate no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

It’s currently playing in a decent production at the Little Colonel Playhouse in PeWee Valley Kentucky. The story revolves around the elderly Brewster sisters (Cindy Smith and Christy Thompkins), who maintain their large family home by taking in elderly boarders. Living with them is their nephew Teddy (Michael Schmid), a mentally challenged man who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt and relives historic moments in his fantasies.

Another of their nephews, Mortimer (G. B. Dixon) is engaged to their neighbor’s daughter Elaine (Stacie McCutcheon) and has come to visit to make the appropriate arrangements. It’s then that he discovers his sweet aunt’s big secret: as a “charity,” they enjoy poisoning lonely, family-deprived elderly men and burying them in their basement. If that’s not bad enough, Mortimer’s evil brother Jonathan (Allen Schuler) and his plastic-surgeon companion Dr. Einstein (John Trueblood) have arrived to dispose of a body of their own.

Complications, plot twists, and chaos ensue, and this production is mostly adept at making it all work. Some roles are pulled off better than others, of course, but the entire cast gives it their all. Especially memorable are Smith and Thompkins, convincingly creating characters much older than themselves, and imbuing these murderous ladies with a believable sense of innocence and a complete lack of awareness of there crimes. Dixon gives a fine, handsome leading-man performance as an increasingly unhinged Mortimer, and Trueblood’s Einstein steals every scene he’s in. Schmid gives one of the best showings as Teddy; his resemblance in appearance and voice to the real Teddy Roosevelt is uncanny and his punch lines are hysterical! Schuler’s character Jonathan (a criminal surgically altered to resemble Karloff) is suitably menacing (although he more closely resembles Joseph Cotton. It’s worth noting that in other productions the character has been changed to resemble Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price, and even gender swapped to resemble John Crawford!). 

Larry Chaney’s direction generally keeps thing moving steadily, though there were a few gaps in the pacing. Costumes and set design were spot on, but I’m not really sure what they were going for with Schuler’s makeup; instead of looking like plastic surgery scars, it resembled smears of cold cream on his cheeks.

These are minor quibbles though, as the show is still quite entertaining. The cast doesn’t rest on their laurels by entirely relying on the script, they earn each laugh they get. It’s worth the road trip to PeWee Valley to catch this slice of live theater and classic comedy!

Festuring Ralph Broyles, Kevin Bushong, Gary Crockett, Stacie McCutcheon, G. B. Dixon, Michael Schmid, Allen Schuler, David C. Scott, Kristin Scott, Cindy Smith, Christy Thompkins, John Trueblood, Neil Webster, and Greg Wood.

Arsenic and Old Lace

March 24, 25 & April 1 @ 7:30 pm
March 26 & 2 @ 2:00 pm

Little Colonel Players
302 Mt Mercy Drive 
Pewee Valley, KY 40056

Craig Nolan Highley has been active in local theatre as an actor, director and producer for more than 14 years. In June 2019 he launched a new company with Jeremy Guiterrez, Theatre Reprise. 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. Craig’s reviews have also appeared in TheatreLouisville and Louisville Mojo.