SOUTH BEND — The thing about well-written plays is they never seem out of date, no matter where or when the setting.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.
The 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).
A 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