ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (Walnut Street Theatre): Macabre Madcap Comedy Classic

Peter Schmitz, Jane Ridley, and Mary Martello in the Walnut Street Theatre’s ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (Photo credit: J. Urdaneta Photography)

Peter Schmitz, Jane Ridley, and Mary Martello in the Walnut Street Theatre’s ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (Photo credit: J. Urdaneta Photography)

The historic Walnut Street Theatre celebrates two milestones with its mainstage presentation of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, written by New York playwright Joseph Kesselring in 1939: the play’s 75th anniversary and its own 205th landmark season. Directed by Charles Abbott, the Walnut Street’s crackerjack production (in association with Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA) whips up the perfect concoction of murder, mayhem, and misplaced “mercy,” topped with a large dollop of macabre madness, in this delectable recipe for hilarity.

The infamous antics of the eccentric Brewster sisters and their equally outlandish family—first introduced in a long-running Broadway debut of the show in 1941, and then in a popular film of 1944, directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant—are brought to life by a spirited cast playing up the lunacy for laughs. Mary Martello (Abby Brewster) and Jane Ridley (Martha Brewster) are the homicidal spinsters, whose charitable acts include putting lonely old men out of their misery by offering them a glass of homemade elderberry wine laced with cyanide, strychnine, and arsenic. The superb veteran actresses portray the ladies as just the right mix of sincere, sensitive, and psycho.

Set in Brooklyn in the Brewster home, decorated with a lacey crocheted throw and antique Victorian appointments, the first-rate scenic design (by Robert Klingelhoefer) captures both the age of the sisters and the disparity between their tasteful environment and their distasteful acts (under beautiful lighting and spooky darkness by Shon Causer). Their old-fashioned lace-trimmed dresses contrast with the more modern ‘30s-style clothing of the younger characters (meticulous period costumes by Colleen Grady), and underscore the old-time etiquette they never fail to practice through the course of their long-time crime spree.

Damon Bonetti delivers a sidesplitting performance as nephew Mortimer Brewster, a relatively sane theater critic in love with Elaine Harper (Jennie Eisenhower), the minister’s daughter. With expert comedic timing and physical brio, he registers concern, shock, confusion, and near-hysteria as he discovers the secrets of his aunts and acknowledges to Elaine the insanity that runs–“practically gallops”—through his family. Self-referencing jibes about the theater, with its improbable murder mysteries and scathing reviewers, contribute to the humor.

The supporting cast, too, is consistently excellent, maintaining the non-stop wackiness of dopey cops (Fran Prisco, John Jarboe, John-Charles Kelly, and Paul L. Nolan), gullible guests (Peter Schmitz), maniacal nephews (Ben Dibble as the delusional but harmless Teddy, who believes he’s Theodore Roosevelt; and Dan Olmstead as the criminally insane Jonathan), and an alcoholic accomplice (Laurent Giroux as Dr. Einstein, who, in order to conceal Jonathan’s identity, has surgically altered his face to resemble Boris Karloff). ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is a comedy classic that rightfully endures; it’s completely zany and wholly entertaining. March 11-April 27, 2014; www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org.

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.