By Lynn Geyer
Happy Birthday! The Lakewood Playhouse if 75 years old this month and still going strong!
To help celebrate their longevity, the Playhouse dusts off an old chestnut and presents a shining nugget of delight to the audiences.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” by Joseph Kesserling is a charming tale of murder and mayhem, tempered with more laughs and entanglements than would crack a shaking stick.
This is the story of a theatre critic (oh, my) who was raised by a pair of maiden aunts in their Brooklyn, N.Y. ancestral home along with their slightly loopy brother, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, and a very villainous sibling.
Mortimer Brewster, the critic, falls in love with the girl next door, Elaine Harper – the daughter of the local minister – who just happens to live on the other side of the cemetery from the Brewster household.
Aunts Abby and Martha are a charming pair deeply engaged in public service. To elevate the loneliness of elderly gentlemen, they douse them with Elderberry wine tinged with a cocktail of poisons and put them to eternal rest in their basement, which has been converted into the Panama Canal with the help of brother Teddy.
All goes well until long estranged brother Jonathan shows up seeking a hiding place for himself, his aide, Dr. Einstein, an inept plastic surgeon, and a slightly deceased companion.
Then the confused comedy of errors and hilarity really begins.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” is not only a classic play which ran for almost 1500 performances on Broadway after opening in 1941, it is also one of the best known Frank Capra screwball comedy movies which, thanks to Turner Classic Movie channel on television, can still be frequently enjoyed by new audiences.
It is always a risky idea to do such a well-known vehicle filled with iconic actors to the stage. The audience might compare the Lakewood Playhouse cast to the likes of Cary Grant’s Mortimer, Raymond Massey’s Jonathan and Peter Lorrie’s Dr. Einstein.
Perhaps the audience had that fleeting moment but within the first 10 minutes of the Playhouse’s production, all references to the movie were wiped out of their minds due to the excellent characterizations recreated by the cast.
Director Dale Westgaard has captured the feel and rhythm of the era and imparted it to his cast; they appear to be of a gentler time – even our villain.
Westgaard has used every inch of the magnificent set of the Brewster stately home designed by Amanda Sweger and dressed by Hally Phillips.
The set is a recreation of the typical turn-of-the-century well-to-do Brooklyn home for which time has stood still for 50 years. It stretches the width of the small, intimate theatre placing the audience in the parlor for viewing the action. Highlights are a three-landing staircase running from the right stage floor to just eight feet short of the peak of the theatre’s roof to allow for a second floor bedroom entrance and the window seat just right the staircase. The furnishings are perfect. It is a giant set with cozy warmth – just like the charming pair who live therein.
Alex Lewington has dressed the actors as well as Phillips dressed the set. They are 1940’s from shoes to hats and all between. Kristen Zetterstrom does the light design; Kait Mahoney is stage manager.
The cast is comprised of Playhouse standards and newcomers alike.
Michael Sandner gently plays The Reverend Dr. Harper, our heroine’s father. Kerry Bringman and Kenneth Loth are police officers Brophy and Klein, respectively; they are typically diligent cops who bow to the whims of the elderly duo.
Patrick Gerrells is wistful as Mr. Gibbs, a potential future resident of the canal, who luckily escapes his would-be fate. Connor Tibke does a nice job doubling as Mr. Hoskins (one who wasn’t so lucky) and Mr. Spinalzo – one of Jonathan’s late business associates – it’s not easy being a corpse. Ernest Heller is perfect as Mr. Witherspoon, the sanatorium administrator.
Steve Terry is dutifully naive and gullible as Lt. Rooney. Mark Peterson is terrific as the would-be playwright Officer O’Hara.
Ana Bury is charming as the mystified fiancée Elaine Harper. Chris Cantrell is appropriately frightening as the deranged Jonathan Brewster.
Jeffery Weaver plays Teddy Brewster perfectly. He not only looks like T. R., he has the former president’s gruff demeanor and gentle temperament.
Diana George is Abby Brewster and Rebecca Lea McCarthy is her sister Martha. These enchanting actors have captured not only the look but the feel and essence of a pair of sisters with the same goals in life. They take pride in their “hobby” and titter about their plans as if they were discussing a beau to their coming-out debut – really nice work by both.
Jacob Tice is remarkable as Mortimer Brewster. His takes and double-takes are spot-on for screwball comedy as is his line delivery. His movements are fluid and his persona pure charm.
Tony Onorati is the subservient, weasel-like Dr. Einstein. Einstein is an evil man who gains the unexpected respect of the audience thanks to the terrific character Onorati has developed.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” continues at The Lakewood Playhouse in the northeast section of the Lakewood Towne Center, next to the Pierce Transit Depot, through October 13, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. There is a Pay-What-You-Can night scheduled for 8 p.m. Thursday, September 19 and an Actor’s Benefit performance at the same time Thursday, September 26.
For reservations or more information, call the box office at (253) 588-0042 or go online to www.lakewoodplayhouse.org.
This classic comedy is almost as old as The Lakewood Playhouse itself. That just goes to show that when something is as good as “Arsenic and Old Lace” and the Playhouse, age only makes it better. Don’t miss this wonderful retelling of a funny, funny show.