BWW Review: Mirthful Murder and Mayhem Take Center Stage in Granite's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
Arsenic and Old Lace is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of comedic storytelling, and Westerly's Granite Theatre stages a real gem of a production. Playwright Joseph Kesselring crafted a sterling script steeped in rapid-fire wit and the most delightful black humor. Each character and scenario included in this tale proves zanier and more outrageous than the last, and Arsenic needs a strong set of comic actors and tight direction to keep the plot line perfectly on pace. The Granite's company, under director David Jepson, meets these required elements with an engaging ensemble cast and on-the-money delivery of each and every punchline.
The story opens during an innocent afternoon tea. Neighbors Abby Brewster and Reverend Harper discuss the budding romance between Brewster nephew, dramatic critic Mortimer, and the minister's daughter, Elaine. Though the good reverend has his qualms about "theater people," he does like Mortimer, and both families are overjoyed when the couple announces their engagement.
Plans for a honeymoon at Niagara Falls soon fade into the distance, however, when Mortimer stumbles over a dead body tucked into his maiden aunts' dining room window seat. His horror compounds when the dear ladies matter-of-factly inform him they've taken to a spot of mercy killing. The duo seeks to end the "suffering" of lonely older men by giving them a sip of elderberry wine -- wine they've laced with their own home-brewed concoction of arsenic, strychnine, and "just a pinch" of cyanide.
The body count, Mortimer learns, stands at 12.
With the sweet Brewster aunts blithely seeking to "assist" their next gentleman, local policemen stopping in for a neighborly visit, and Mortimer's brother Teddy racing around the house convinced that he's Theodore Roosevelt, it seems Mortimer has more on his plate than he can possibly handle. That is, of course, the very moment his other brother, the criminally insane Jonathan, escapes the law and unexpectedly arrives at the Brewster house plotting his own sinister designs.
John Cillino carries the weight of the play's comedy as the perpetually aghast Mortimer. Mortimer's dumbfounded responses to the insanity unfolding around him tell half Arsenic's story. The rest of the characters maintain an utterly phlegmatic view of their unbalanced activities, and Mortimer's voice of reason falls frustratingly on deaf ears. Cillino is the play's straight man. His stunned expressions and staggered physical reactions to each new shock ideally contrast the pandemonium coursing through the Brewster family home.
At the calm center of that storm stand Beth Jepson and Christine Reynolds as Abby and Martha Brewster. The old-fashioned aunts' routine acts of benevolence and gentle Victorian worldview underscore the ludicrousness of their murderous activities. As the more practical Miss Abby, Jepson offers the perfect deadpan delivery of some of the funniest one-liners in the production. Reynolds beautifully contrasts Martha's sheltered, charming naivety with her giddy pride in poison-making. Both women sell the aunts' honest trepidation and (later) hilarious indignation when nephew Jonathan arrives on their doorstep.
And Jude Pescatello makes for a most ruthless and threatening Jonathan. Pescatello seems to revel in the role as he looms above his fellow cast mates, stalking them across the stage, mugging with abandon, and quietly but unequivocally establishing the menace simmering under Jonathan's too-calm façade. Jonathan, it should be noted, is none too pleased with said current façade. His partner-in-crime, plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein, changes Jonathan's face each time it becomes too familiar to the police. Unfortunately, Einstein recently operated while intoxicated and transformed Jonathan into the spitting image of Boris Karloff. This issue -- made even funnier by the fact that Karloff played Jonathan in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace -- becomes a running gag as a real sore spot for the hot-tempered felon.
Michael Jepson's small and soft-spoken Dr. Einstein provides the perfect foil for Pescatello's ominous, intimidating presence, and never has a criminal accomplice appeared more amiable. Jepson's skillful portrayal makes Dr. Einstein truly likable in spite of the character's shady past, and he earns laughter both through his delivery of the spoken word and in his winning stage presence. Jepson uses each gesture and slight movement to develop Einstein's characterization and support the unfolding narrative.
The Granite's entire ensemble is to be commended for fine performances, including cast members John Lamar, Michael Chiaradio, William Pereira, and David Jepson. Fergus Milton endues Teddy with a perpetually delightful air of presidential dignity, Ann Westendorf makes for a feisty and independent Elaine, and Tom Steenburg steals the spotlight both as the reserved Mr. Gibbs and dim-witted Officer O'Hara. David Jepson also outdoes himself with a beautifully detailed set and creative lighting design.
Arsenic and Old Lace has been an audience favorite for decades. The stage production first bowed in New York in 1941 and ran for over three years on Broadway, with an acclaimed and enduring film adaptation starring Cary Grant, Josephine Hull, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre gracing the silver screen in 1944. The Granite Theatre's staging does this legacy of laughter full justice with an entirely enjoyable and polished performance.
The Renaissance City Theatre presents Arsenic and Old Lace at Westerly's Granite Theatre through October 8, 2017. Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased online at www.granitetheatre.com or by calling the box office at 401-596-2341. Child and senior discount rates are available. The Granite Theatre is located at 1 Granite Street, Westerly, RI 02891.