Ivoryton’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” a macabre farce
IVORYTON — An old Connecticut favorite, “Arsenic and Old Lace” is playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday.
This show, written by Joseph Kesselring, was originally produced in 1939, and is about two lovable aunts in Brooklyn, New York, who poison elderly gentlemen in what they see as an act of kindness, since the men they knock off are old and lonely, with no family.
What gives the play such a tie to Connecticut is that the story is based on a real murderess, former Windsor-resident Amy Archer-Gilligan, who killed off two of her husbands and at least 66 others in her boarding house around 1911.
Interestingly enough, it was a Hartford Courant reporter who first noticed something suspicious when there were an inordinate number of obituaries reported from the Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids, which Archer-Gilligan had opened and operated.
Archer-Gilligan did the dirty deeds with arsenic-laced lemonade, but the Brewster sisters lethal cocktail of choice is elderberry wine with arsenic, strychnine, “and then just a pinch of cyanide.”
They see themselves as angels doing good deeds, while their nephew, Teddy Brewster, played with conviction by Tom Libonate, sees himself as President Theodore Roosevelt, charging up the well-built staircase like it was San Juan Hill.
As Aunt Martha, played with loveable charm and a bizarre logic by Susan Gayle Pynn, says of their nephew, “We so much rather he be Roosevelt rather than nobody.”
Equally charming and delusional, Aunt Abby, played by Alden Rockwell Murphy, laments that their other nephew, Mortimer Brewster, played energetically by Dan Whelton, is a theater critic for a New York newspaper.
“The theater can’t last much longer, but it’s a living,” says Aunt Abby, adding, somewhat incongruously, how appalling it is that Mortimer has to see so much murder and mayhem on the stage.
There is also a third nephew, Jonathan Brewster, who makes an unwelcome entry after a lengthy sojourn. Mortimer says that as a child Jonathan used to “cut worms in two with his teeth,” and adds, “he left Brooklyn early by request.”
Now Jonathan’s back, looking like Boris Karloff and up to nefarious deeds, sporting a face filled with many botched plastic surgeries by erstwhile surgeon, Dr. Einstein, (Herman, not Albert).
The gothically hammy Robert Boardman plays Jonathan Brewster with a malleable face like a rubber mask, while possessing a dancer’s flexibility and grace, well used when he tumbles in windows or sidles up the stairs.
R. Bruce Connelly plays his alcoholic cohort in crime, Dr. Einstein, with perfect comic timing. Connelly ekes every drop of hilarity out of the smallest line with nothing more than a gesture or knowing glance.
The fine Victorian-era living room by scenic designer Rachel Reynolds, a vision in browns, is period perfect, down to the filigree on the staircase banister and the stained glass windows on the front door.
I love the classic 1944 Frank Capra film by the same name, starring Cary Grant with Peter Lorrie, which is just as wacky, but not as hilarious as this production, well directed by Julia Kiley.
As a special extra, M. William Phelps, the author of “The Devil’s Rooming House,” about female serial killer Archer-Gilligan, will be at the Ivoryton Playhouse on Saturday to speak about his book and sign copies after the evening performance.
I have seen this show numerous times at community theaters and have enjoyed them all, but this production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the Ivoryton Playhouse is hands down the best one yet.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
Location: Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton, Conn.
Production: Written by Joseph Kesselring. Directed by Julia Kiley. Scenic design by Rachel Reynolds. Stage manager Theresa Stark. Costume design by Pam Puente. Lighting design by Aaron Breskey. Wig design by Joel Silvestro.
Running time: 2 ½ hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Wednesday and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through June 27.
Tickets: $38 for adults, $33 for seniors, $20 for students, and $15 for children 12 and under. Call the box office at 860-767-7318, or visit their website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org
Dan Whelton … Mortimer Brewster
Robert Boardman … Jonathan Brewster
R. Bruce Connelly … Dr. Einstein
Alden Rockwell Murphy … Abby Brewster
Susan Gayle Pynn … Martha Brewster
Tom Libonate … Teddy Brewster
Courtney Shaw … Elaine Harper
Kevin Spedding … Officer O’Hara
Stephen Kelly … Rev. Dr. Harper; Lt. Rooney
Jamison Daniels … Officer Brophy
Dan Coyle … Mr. Gibbs
Joe Kornfeld … Mr. Witherspoon