Play review: 'Arsenic and Old Lace'

 

Missouri Western’s theatre department continues to impress on stage. “Arsenic and Old Lace” just might have been the most enjoyable production of the university’s “Season of Classics” — and that’s no knock on “Romeo and Juliet” or “A Christmas Carol.”

A dark comedy, Joseph Kesserling’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” strikes a much different tone than Shakespeare’s tragedy and Dickens’ classic novel turned beloved stage drama. The cast in Western’s production, directed by professor Tee Quillin, captured that tone nearly perfectly during a Feb. 17 performance at Potter Hall Theater.

Matt Wright stood out among a strong cast as Mortimer Brewster. The most sane member of his family, Mortimer has to deal with his sweetly murderous aunts, a delusional brother who thinks he’s the Teddy Roosevelt and another brother prone to fits of rage and violence.

As Jonathan Brewster, played with an intimidating presence by Pierce Karguth, says, “There’s a strange taint in the Brewster blood.”

As a result, they just can’t help but kill people. Between Jonathan, who’s likely to flip his lid if you point out his resemblance to movie star Boris Karloff, and his aunts, there are 24 bodies. Maybe 25 — it’s hard to keep count after a while.

The aunts, Sonrisa Johnston as Martha Brewster and Ali Bird as Abby Brewster, were spot-on. Johnston and Bird were convincingly sweet, charming and hospitable. You’d never suspect their dark secret.

Yet, that secret comes to light when Mortimer lifts the lid to the window seat containing the aunts’ latest poisoning victim, one Anthony Hoskins, a wayward old Methodist who rented a room in the Brewster house.

Mortimer’s reaction is priceless. Then, he discovers there’s not just the one body, but another 11 buried in the basement. Wright’s zany, over-the-top antics fit the scene to a T.

“You can’t do things like that,” he bellows, voice full of shock and disgust. “Not only is it wrong — it’s illegal!”

Abby Brewster, sweet and innocent as ever, replies, “Well, Mortimer, we don’t tell you not to do things you like to do.”

Clearly, Martha and Abby don’t grasp the gravity of the situation.

But how exactly are those bodies getting buried down in the basement? That’s where Teddy Brewster, played by Sebastian Smith, comes in.

Believing he’s a former president, Teddy’s taken to digging the Panama Canal. The locks he digs are perfectly suited for use as graves for the aunts’ victims. Through a simple white lie, the aunts get Teddy to dispose of their evidence. Just mention “state secret,” and Teddy’s on board.

Whether he’s charging up San Juan Hill (aka the Brewster’s staircase) or giving a toothy grin for a presidential photo op, Smith drew the biggest laughs on the night — and there were plenty of them — with his physical comedy.

Erin Williams, who played Mortimer’s fiancee, Elaine, was memorable in a smaller but important role. The rejuvenation of Western’s theater department in the last several years is largely due to the development of actors and actresses including Williams, Wright and Bird.

There was, however, a notable drop-off in acting from these more experienced thespians to some of the less experienced actors who earned smaller roles. The bar’s been set high, and these underclassmen will need to step up and carry the program’s momentum as others move on from the program. Between professors Quillin and Dallas Henry, they’re sure to receive strong guidance.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” was the funniest play to hit Western’s main stage (“Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” performed off the main stage, notwithstanding) in recent memory. Sure hope you didn’t miss out.

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