Want to have some fun? Want to roll in the aisles with laughter? Stage Right Players may have the answer for you at the Crighton Theatre with their uproarious current production of Joseph Kesselring’s comedy romp, Arsenic and Old Lace. Now mind you, I said may have the answer. You must first bring with you a certain set of audience skills, foremost among them the ability to suspend your disbelief of the frantically nutty and highly improbable plot. If you can pass that test, a great deal of fun lies in store for you, and this is a cast that can really deliver the laughs in this classic comedy under the skillful direction of Brenda Storseth.
If you can forgive the pun, allow me to summarize the plot in a NUT-shell. Mortimer Brewster (Michael Blake Oldham) is a sometimes-reluctant theatre critic in love with the very lovely Elaine Harper (Cassandra Roschen), who happens to be the daughter of the pleasantly pious Reverend Dr. Harper (Greg Kelly). The couples’s engagement to be married brings with it a new supply of laughs, and Roschen skillfully adds a pleasant twist of exasperation as perhaps the only really sane character in the play. The action plays out in the beautiful Victorian home of Mortimer’s two amusingly eccentric aunts, Abby (Leona Hoegsberg) and Martha (Carolyn Corsano Wong). Mr. Oldham, meanwhile, has possibly the greatest acting challenge conveying Mortimer’s reactions as he begins to discover that his outwardly sweet aunties are, in fact, mass murderers. The charming Victorian set (scenic designers, Ms. Storseth, Dennis O’Connor & Katt Gilcrease) and the equally charming period costumes all combine to give this production the polished glow (lighting designs by Roger Ormiston) that such a uniformly excellent cast deserves.
Now for the thoroughly far-fetched fun that awaits you. Mortimer’s Aunts are elegant, dignified, — and screwy!
They have developed a certain odd kind of Christian charity that involves occasionally serving the unsuspecting an arsenic-spiked elderberry wine thinking it will bring final peace to any lonely old men without families who happen to drop in to rent rooms in the house. Sound crazy? You betcha, but somehow the premise begins to catch fire in assorted hilarious ways. There are a few dry patches when the comedy drops off a bit, but the comic cause is greatly advanced by the arrival of Mortimer’s long lost and very sinister brother, Jonathan Brewster (a threatening performance from Mr. Gilcrease), and his crazy partner in crime, Dr. Einstein (Dennis O’Connor).
Mr. O’Connor’s performance was a wonderful reminder of why the actor was greatly missed during the several years destiny took him far away from Conroe. Now he is back and playing a dangerous game, but he is winning hands down. He clearly based his characterization on that of the late Peter Lorre who hilariously played the Dr. Einstein role in the classic film version of this dark comedy that starred Cary Grant as Mortimer. Trying to capture the mannerisms of another well-known actor can be tricky at best, but O’Connor accomplishes this task with such uproarious and consummate skill I found myself gasping for breath amid my roars of laughter. He must be channeling the spirit of Mr. Lorre. Similarly, Hoegsberg and Wong play the two murderous aunts with such delicious innocence that the laughter is compounded. Even the shuffling body language of these two elderly ladies adds to the mirth.
The strong cast includes Johnny Barton, Michael Wong and Michael Cadwallader as bumbling police officers, with the latter as a standout playing the very Irish Officer O’Hara with terrific brogue and comic timing. Punctuating the mayhem of all this insanity is the third Brewster brother, Teddy (David Vela).
Teddy is thoroughly convinced he is President Teddy Roosevelt and he proves it by periodically blowing his trumpet, or, with sword in hand, storming up the staircase that he believes is San Juan Hill. There is fine supporting work from Jim King as Mr. Gibbs, Phil Clarke as the raging Lt. Rooney, and Will Radcliffe as the kindly superintendent of Happy Dale Asylum who had better be careful what he drinks. Now dear readers, unless you are crazy too, you should hurry over to the Crighton Theatre while there is still time to enjoy the lunacy.
The Stage Right Players production of Arsenic and Old Lace continues through September 22, 2013 at the Crighton Theatre in Conroe, Texas. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets and information call 936-441-7469 or visit the website at www.stage-right.org.