The Column Online



By Joseph Kesselring

Granbury Theatre Company

Director-Luke Hunt
Stage Manager- Taylor Ray Donaldson
Set Design-Nicholas Graves
Lighting Design- Cameron Burrus
Costume Design-Emily Warwick
Set Dresser/Scenic Artist-Kerri Pavelick
Prop master-Gaylene Carpenter


Abby Brewster- Tonya Laree
Martha Brewster-Drenda Lewis
Mortimer Brewster-Matt Beutner
Elaine Harper-Katherine Anthony
Teddy Brewster - Brian Lawson
Jonathan Brewster-Micky Shearon
Dr. Einstein- Tim Herndon
The Rev. Dr. Harper-Bob Coleman
Lieutenant Rooney- Bentleigh Nesbit
Officer Brophy- Kevin Baum
Officer Klein- Jordan Juice Houston
Officer O’Hara- A. Solomon Abah, Jr.
Mr. Gibbs- Doug Long
Mr. Witherspoon- Greg Doss

Reviewed Performance: 10/22/2017

Reviewed by Mildred Austin, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Arsenic and Old Lace is a farcical dark comedy written by Joseph Kesselring and performed on Broadway in 1941, premiering at the Fulton Theatre. Later the show moved to the Hudson Theatre where it closed on June 17, 1944 after 1,444 performances. All in all, it is by far the most successful of the twelve plays written by Kesselring. It is believed he may have taken as his inspiration for the plot centering on the two murderous aunts, actual events which occurred in a house in Windsor, Connecticut, where a woman, Amy Archer-Gilligan, took in elderly boarders and poisoned them for their pensions. The author originally conceived ARSENIC AND OLD LACE as a heavy drama, but it is believed the producers, Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, convinced him it would be much more effective as a comedy.

The plot centers around the Brewster family, elderly aunts Abby and Martha Brewster who poison older gentlemen who come to their house to seek room and board with a glass of their homemade elderberry wine and “just a pinch” of arsenic. The two women see it as a way to help the lonely men who are without family or friends, on their way to something better. Their nephew Teddy, a bit crazy himself, believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and on “expeditions” buries the bodies in the cellar for his sisters. Another nephew, Jonathan, also a homicidal maniac, shows up at the Brewster home unexpectedly running from the police, with a body also in tow. With him is his plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein, who has repeatedly provided Jonathan with new faces in order to avoid capture. A third nephew is Mortimer Brewster who reviews New York plays and lives with his aunts in their home, totally unaware of their sideline of “murder by elderberry wine.” He is on the verge of romantic commitment to neighbor Elaine Harper who is determined not to let him get away. The play is considered a “dark comedy” in that it takes its fun from subjects not normally considered funny, i.e., murder and insanity. The audience is left empathizing with the aunts rather than their lonely subjects since the aunts are so sweet and see no harm in their helping the gentlemen on to their heavenly reward.

Although 50+ years since it was first performed, the play still enjoys many yearly high school and community theatre revivals across the country and for good reason. All these many years later, it still “works.” It is still very funny and audiences love it. The director of this production recounts enjoying a radio production of the show as a small child and still looking forward to the time he could direct it on stage. I attended the show with a friend from high school, and we participated in the production of this play in the spring of 1962 as seniors in high school. I played Abby Brewster and she was my “sister”, Martha. And here we were, 54 years later laughing again at the play as though we had never seen it before.

That said, the play does, however, have requirements in order for the lines and the plot to produce the laughs. In Arsenic and Old Lace, timing is everything and for the most part, the Granbury Theatre Company came through. Director Luke Hunt coaxed his actors on when to lay back on lines and when to “let ‘em rip”! His use of the stage pushed the action forward and pushed energy into the characterizations. There are several times when the stage is necessarily crowded with characters and Hunt managed the staging of those scenes skillfully.

Tonya Laree as Abby Brewster was delightfully clueless and sweet as she clucked over her nephews Mortimer and Teddy and appropriately disapproving and standoffish with sinister nephew Jonathan. Her vocal quality was a bit high pitched and I couldn’t ascertain if this was her normal range or it she was adopting it to simulate advanced age, which really isn’t necessary if physical presence and characterization establishes that, which it did in her case. Drenda Lewis as Martha, had a bit more edge to her sweetness, and didn’t always seem so clueless, which successfully created a difference between the characters of the two sisters. She was on target both physically and vocally and both ladies were a delight onstage.

Brian Lawson is a show stealer for his portrayal of Teddy Brewster, the nephew who lives with his aunts and is quite convinced he is Teddy Roosevelt. His characterization never lags and his energy level never drops even when, without dialog, he enjoys some of his aunts’ cookies with tea. His “CHARGE” up the stairs is always so dynamic one really often forgets he isn’t Mr. Roosevelt!

Matt Beutner as Mortimer, the only seemingly sane member of the family, pulls his role off convincingly. He is harried, worried, frantic, trying to maintain his sanity in the midst of chaotic madness and he is quite credible as he tries to set things to right without any harsh penalties for his beloved aunts and brother Teddy. I just wasn’t always convinced of his commitment to Elaine and he seemed relieved to be forced to break their engagement.

And speaking of Elaine, Katherine Anthony was certainly beautiful enough to have captured Mortimer’s attentions but she seemed more anxious to reel him in rather than experience any real affection for him. The stage kiss between the two just seemed perfunctory. No sparks as there should be. And there must be angst when Mortimer breaks off the engagement because of the reason he feels he must give.

Jonathan Brewster, played by Micky Shearon is the only truly mean and evil character in the play and Shearon, with help from makeup, looks appropriately scary. This role was originated by Boris Karloff in the original stage production and Mr. Shearon keeps Jonathan low and threatening as did Karloff before him in the many times he recreated the character. Keeping his voice to a growl rather than a shout enabled Shearon to appear and sound appropriately menacing. His sidekick, Tim Herndon as Dr. Einstein, was delightful as a man in over his head in a situation he never envisioned or wanted. Herndon is quietly hilarious and has the audience hoping for his getaway from the police while Shearon practically evokes “boos” as Jonathan receives his reward.

Bob Coleman is so natural in his portrayal of the Rev. Dr. Harper, I had to double check the program to make sure he wasn’t a pastor in real life. And I loved the energy and character differentiations brought to the roles of the four police officers: Bentleigh Nesbit as Lt .Rooney, Kevin Baum as Officer Brophy, Jordan Juice Houston as Officer Klein and A. Solomon Abah, Jr. as Officer O’Hara. Last, but not least by any means, Doug Long as Mr. Gibbs and Greg Doss as Mr. Witherspoon help keep the energy level of the cast up even though their foray on stage is brief. Those small roles can do so much damage to an otherwise good production, if the actors playing them don’t take them to heart and create their character fully no matter how short their appearance and Gibbs and Doss rise to the occasion.

This is a costume show and Emily Warwick does a fantastic job dressing the actors to assist in fleshing out their characterizations. I remember my costume as Abby was a long dress and I thought it much more realistic to dress the sisters in mid-calf length skirts. She maintained the “old lady” look but it made much more sense for the dresses not to be floor length. Teddy’s costumes as Roosevelt were fabulous and added the element to make him Roosevelt! I wasn’t crazy about Elaine’s various dresses. They were pretty enough separately, but seemed so similar when seen one after another, it gave them, and her, a “cookie cutter” look I didn’t care for but it wasn’t a major distraction. I also have to say I didn’t care for some of the choices for shoes for Abby and Martha. Some looked like modern day boots and they should have been more the old fashioned lace up, low-heeled oxfords I thought. More like what they wore when attired for the funeral.

The set was quite visually pleasing and beautifully dressed. There were some serious sightline problems, however, and actors could be seen waiting outside the front door a good bit before they were to make an appearance. There was also a problem with actors, or stagehands peering around the curtains to see the action onstage. The window box worked beautifully with all the gag and sight jokes that took place in, on and around it. The door to the kitchen was placed a bit too close to the window, however, making that an improbable immediate left hand turn when exiting that door had it been a real house.

The curtain call is superb and in the spirit of the play. Loved it! The actors in this production looked to be having a great time and the audience was with them every moment and rewarded them with a standing ovation. It’s not often that death can be so much fun but my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Arsenic and Old Lace as the Granbury Theatre Company breathed life into it once again!

Granbury Theatre Company
133 East Pearl Street
Granbury, TX

Plays through November 5, 2017

Fridays at 7:30 p.m.
Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

Box Office Hours:
12:00-5:00 Monday-Thursday
12:00-7:30 Friday
10:00-7:30 Saturday
12:00-2:30 Sunday