The cast takes a bow from left, Elaine (Crystal Miller), Abby (Jody Shepard), Martha (Jeanne Adkins), Mortimer (Don Monteith) and LANL Director Charlie McMillan who plays the corpse. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/ladailypost.com
Arsenic and Old Lace returns to the Los Alamos Little Theatre stage 69 years after its 1944 Los Alamos debut as the opening production of LALT’s 70th season.
Now an old chestnut and one of the most produced plays around, in 1944 Arsenic was a modern sensation. Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 comedy ran for 1,444 performances in its opening run on Broadway and the 1944 film directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant became a classic.
Los Alamos and its Little Theatre were also brand new in 1944. One of the things that amaze me about war-years Los Alamos is how people under enormous pressure to complete one of the grimmest tasks in the history of mankind managed to find time for music, theater, cocktails and the founding of many of our current civic institutions.
In the opening production of Arsenic, the dead body was played by none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer, a role reprised Saturday night by current Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charlie McMillan.
Inside jokes are a bit of a tradition in Arsenic. One of the running jokes is that the villain resembles Boris Karloff. Karloff played the villainous Jonathon Brewster in the original production. More inside humor is embedded through hero Mortimer Brewster’s profession. He’s a drama critic. The unlikely happenings in the play are constantly compared to the dramas Mortimer has panned.
I’m sure critics over the years (as Mortimer points out, ‘somebody has to do these things’) have gotten a big kick out of lines like, “I can save time if I write my review on the way to the theatre.”
I promise, I didn’t write this review prior to viewing the play.
In case you’ve somehow managed to miss seeing Arsenic and Old Lace, the plot is this. The play opens with the charming, if slightly dotty spinster aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster (Jody Shepard and Jeanne Adkins) and their nephew Teddy (Larry Gibbons) entertaining the Rev. Harper and chatting about the romance between their other nephew, Mortimer, and Harper’s daughter Elaine. Also on hand are two friendly policemen who are clearly frequent visitors.
The first hint that things at the Brewster home might be a bit strange is when it becomes apparent that Teddy believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt and charges up “San Juan Hill” (the stairs) to fetch a charity box. When Mortimer turns up and discovers a body in the window seat, we know for sure.
Playing one of the best loved murderesses in the American drama, Jody Shepard is simply fantastic as Abby Brewster. She brings off Abby’s combination of charm and slyness perfectly. Shepard manages to make you wish Abby was your aunt and be relieved that she isn’t at the same time.
Jeanne Adkins does a good job as her equally charming sister Martha. The interactions between the two are some of the best moments in the play. When we discover that the sisters have been knocking off lonely gentlemen lodgers, we somehow keep right on being charmed by them.
Don Monteith brings some sanity to the stage in the role of the put upon Mortimer, the only sane member of family. Monteith brings off the physical comedy in great style. Mortimer doesn’t seem likable at first, but soon we’re rooting for him as he juggles his curious fiancée Elaine (Crystal Miller) and his crazy family.
Another standout cast member is Pete Sanford as the psychopathic Jonathon Brewster, yet another nephew, who matches his aunts’ body count corpse for corpse. As his partner in homicide, Dr. Einstein, (not that Dr. Einstein) Brad Lounsbury manages to engage our sympathy with his efforts to keep the maniacal Jonathon under control.
Everyone in the cast puts in a good performance. So important as almost to be a member of the cast is the beautiful set by Fran Stoval and her crew. Designed by Stoval and Larry Cox, the cozy Brewster home is perfect for the chaos that unfolds.
Director T. J. Severinghaus has staged a production full of flare and fun. Be sure to visit the Brewster home during the play’s run, but stay away from the elderberry wine and don’t peek in the window seat.
Aresenic and Old Lace continues at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20, 21, 27 and 28, with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee Sept. 22 at the Los Alamos Little Theatre (1670 Nector St.) Tickets are available at CB FOX or one half hour before curtain at the theatre. The play has had near sell-out crowds in its first two performances, so get your tickets in advance or plan to show up early.