"Arsenic" Still Alive and Kicking

SOUTH BEND — The thing about well-written plays is they never seem out of date, no matter where or when the setting. This is definitely true of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the homicidal farce penned in 1939 by Joseph Kesselring who wrote a dozen plays of which only “Arsenic” survived the test of time. As presented by South Bend Civic Theatre in its Wilson Mainstage Auditorium, it also proved that the laughs are still there even though the time is 1941, the locale is Brooklyn and most of the main characters are definitely deranged… in a genteel sort of way.

Arsenic and Old Lace at South Bend Civic TheatreThe classic 1944 film version starred Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who hates the theater,  with Josephine Hull as Abby Brewster and Jean Adair as Martha Brewster, his aunts. Both women created the roles in the original Broadway production but the original Jonathan Brewster, Boris Karloff, remained on stage when the film was shot. Ergo, the many references to Jonathan’s resemblance to Karloff were definitely intentional. The film Jonathan was Raymond Massey, an actor who looked more than a little like the horror king. One of the difficulties in casting “Arsenic” is finding an actor who looks like — or can be made to look like — Karloff. The SBCT production finds Matthew Bell in the role. Although he is too slim to be physically threatening, he works very hard at being grimly menacing and is, for the most part, successful. He wastes no time in taking over the home while Abby (Leigh Taylor) and Martha (Mary Ann Moran) unhappily allow the unwelcome intrusion, obviously because they were brought up to mind the men of the house. If Jonathan is obviously criminally insane, his aunts are close behind, although not so obviously, thanks to their  “very bad habit” of ushering lonely elderly gentlemen into the next world via a few sips of their homemade — and very lethal — elderberry wine. The bodies are dispatched to the “Panama Canal” (the cellar) where brother Teddy Brewster (Todd Sheneman), who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, digs them graves as yellow fever victims. Once the first corpse is discovered by Mortimer, he becomes increasingly frantic as the body count mounts requiring playing on several levels of hysteria. The difficult assignment is handled a shade too calmly throughout by Anthony Panzica. Taylor and Leigh deliver eye-of-the-storm calm that allows them to view their macabre work as “our little charity.” Around them swirl Mortimer’s new fiance, Elaine Harper (Kristin Apker), daughter of the minister next door; Officer O’Hara (Rick Ellis), an Irish playwright wanna-be; and a various assortment of old gentlemen and dumb cops, who can’t spot the psychopath right under their noses. But, hey, it’s a farce and if everyone acted sensibly, it would be over in five minutes rather than two hours (with two intermissions).

Arsenic and Old Lace at South Bend Civic TheatreA highlight of this production is Bill Frascella as Dr. Herman Einstein, Jonathan’s plastic surgeon-in-waiting. Larger than the usual Peter Lorre-size character, he makes the most of every situation and there is no doubt that he has long since lost enthusiasm for Jonathan’s murderous ventures, making his cautious departure excusable. The set, complete with large staircase up which Teddy charges periodically, is certainly reminiscent of old turn of the century homes, with appropriately lovely furniture and some great lamps.  The pacing was quite slow Saturday evening, but undoubtedly will pick up for the last five performances.

“ARSENIC AND OLD LACE” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the theater at 403 N. Main St. For reservations, call 234-1112 from noon to 6 p.m. weekdays or visit www.sbct.org

"Escanaba" No. 2 A Real Winner

BRISTOL — Elkhart Civic Theatre, like most community groups, is very careful when selecting a season of plays. The rule of thumb is to wait about 10 years before repeating any production. When this rule is suspended, you can be sure there is a good reason. That reason was obvious Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House when ECT unveiled its 2009 production of Jeff Daniels’ wild and wooly comedy “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” Most recently presented in 2006, it was so popular it begged for  quick return. Friday marked the fourth time I have seen this comedy. Twice at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., which also brought it back in record time (’04 and ’06) and at ECT in ’06. Most would think that, after a quartet of viewings — especially knowing where and what the jokes are — the urge to laugh would fade out.

Elkhart Civic Theatre production of Jeff Daniels' Escanaba in da MoonlightWrong! I laughed just as long and hard at the current “Escanaba” as I did back in ’04. Part of this is the fact that director Stephanie Salisbury had the good sense to reassemble 4/6 of the original cast. Part of it is the fact that author Daniels has created characters that it is impossible to forget, tough hairy men who are rough on the outside and goofily human on the inside. Returning cast members are Steve Salisbury (yes, that’s her husband but nepotism had nothing to do with it…he’s just plain perfect for the part) as Albert Soady, grizzled patriarch of the Yupper clan (for Yupper, read people in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula ABOVE the bridge); Timothy Yoder and Brian Scott Kozlowski as his sons Reuben and Remnar Soady, respectively, described kindly by their father as “not the sharpest tools in the shed”; and Paul Hanft as alien abductee and fellow Yuper Jimmer Negamanee from Menaminee. All have recreated their roles and are as good if not better than the first time around. The setting, again designed and dressed by ECT artistic director John Shoup, is the perfect deer hunting cabin, complete with large trophies of past shoots and properly rustic furnishings. The time is the evening before the opening day of hunting season. “It’s like Christmas with guns,”  Remnar declares in happy anticipation, The focus is on Reuben, at 35 the oldest Soady never to have shot a buck. To keep this from being entered in the Soady “bible,” a record of past family hunts and trophies, he intends to break the annual rituals in order to bring himself a bit of luck. Needless to say, the family objects — loudly and strenuously — especially Remnar who is definitely “a creature of habit.” As dad and the boys settle in, Jimmer bursts in and expands the legends surrounding his alien abduction by hysterically reporting the “demise” of his Chevy and the appearance of “hoovering lights.” The evening wears on and other strange occurrences reinforce the hunters’ growing suspicions that something weird is happening. The appearance of Ranger Tom T. Treado (Ricky Fields) of the hated DNR ,who shares his own uncommon experience, does nothing to reassure them. In addition to excellent comic timing by all (and there are enough huge laughs from the audience to drown dialogue if not timed correctly), the cast delivers the proper Yupper accents, Hanft deserves the “all-you-can-drink”  medal and Yoder, the “I Wouldn’t Want to Be in His Place” award, with Melissa Domiano as Reuben’s Ojibwa wife, earning a “no small parts” citation. Joining these rough, tough men as they prepare to hunt “bucks as big as Buicks,” is a real comedic blast that has nothing to do with strange lights or stranger sounds, just some good actors creating good solid characters from a good script. The result is more fun than hunting, especially for us “lowlanders.” NOTE: When audience members in the first two rows are advised to wear the ponchos they receive, they would do well to follow that advice. The management will pay no cleaning bills.

“ESCANABA IN DA MOONLIGHT”  plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Sept. 25-26 and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Opera House. For reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit the ECT website.