By Colston Newton
With their current production, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the Westmoreland Players have tackled another show from the earlier Broadway and film productions that have engraved certain actors’ portrayals of their characters onto the public consciousness. That’s theatrical bravery, but the Players have gotten away with it again. The only way Michell Bruner’s portrayal of murderous Jonathan Brewster is less than that of Boris Karloff on Broadway is that the descriptions of his character scattered throughout the show as “looking like Boris Karloff” aren’t as sure fire. They weren’t that way in the movie, either, when Raymond Massey played the part.
Arsenic and Old Lace is a genuinely funny bit of dark humor based on a pair of sweet Victorian sisters who poison lonely, elderly gentlemen so that they can look as “peaceful” as Mr. Midgely, who died of a heart attack at their table. The sisters disagree as to whether Midgely should count as one of their victims since they didn’t poison him. Even so, he’s buried in their cellar with the other 11 in the Panama Canal “locks” their nephew, Teddy, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, has dug. The real fun starts when another nephew, a sane one, Mortimer, finds a body in a window seat. It escalates when the body in the window seat is buried in the basement but another killed by homicidal nephew Jonathan takes its place.
Throughout the Players’ production the sisters, played by Sharon Robertson and Anita Harrower, project such nutty innocence that no one would want them jailed for the murders. Indeed, Mortimer, played by Frank Connelly, doesn’t want them caught but their murderousness and that of his brother Jonathan plus the wackiness of his brother Teddy convince him he carries faulty genes and can’t marry Elaine, his girl friend played by Carolyn Reiner. He can’t tell her why, either.
There are plenty of cops, played by Ellen Gaines, Al Hooker, Lynn Brownley and John Pittman, in and out of the house but they are so clueless that they never suspect the dear old ladies or even Jonathan’s sidekick played by Bruce Lawler in a beard and thick German accent.
Cary Jones and Tommy Neumann have smaller parts as the reverend next door and the superintendent of the insane asylum where Mortimer thinks the entire crowd belongs. Both do a fine job of being potential victims as the audience waits to see if they’ll sip the sisters’ elderberry wine fortified with arsenic, strychnine and a “pinch of cyanide.”
The entire show is funny but Alan Campbell’s turn as Teddy keeps it from being too dark. Whenever enough time has past that the audience might start taking things seriously, he shows up charging San Juan Hill (the stairs) or blowing a bugle. Brownley’s stage struck and bibulous Officer O’Hara adds additional broad comedy.
The entire play occurs in one room on a set designed by director Glenn Evans. The set, all black except for silver wall decorations and trimmings suggests an old time hearse without being too obvious about it. Co-director Joy Evans’ costuming is spot on for the early 1900 period.
The play will run through Aug.17 at the Playhouse just west of Callao. Tickets my be reserved at 529-9345. Those needing hearing assistance should ask that the Players’ new audio enhancing devices be made available to them.