‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ will make your heart race

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By Sara Miller

Each year as the community prepares for Halloween, store shelves are lined with sinister costumes, and our world dresses itself in a bit of the macabre. This annual tradition proves that we find a bit of pleasure in scaring ourselves silly. The latest production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at StageDoor Theatre is much more silly than scary, but the black comedy is still dotted with the all of the spine-tingling macabre that makes this time of year so much fun.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” was written in the late 1930s by American playwright Joseph Kesselring. Kesselring began the script as a no-nonsense crime drama, but friends pointed out that there is a wicked brand of humor teeming through a story about spinster sisters whose unique definition of goodwill includes the poisoning of lonely old men.
The show borders on farcical as the story of the two sisters unfolds. Martha and Abigail Brewster see it as their religious calling to release old men of their boredom and loneliness by disposing of them with poisoned elderberry wine, and then burying them in their basement with full funeral rites.
The tongue-in-cheek diabolicalness doesn’t stop with the two sisters. The cast is filled with offbeat characters who either help or hinder the ladies’ mission. Teddy Brewster is the nephew who believes that he is Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy spends his days in the cellar burying what he believes are victims of yellow fever (when in fact they are victims of elderberry wine and arsenic) and yelling “Charge!” each time he storms up San Juan Hill (the basement stairs). A second nephew, Jonathan, is an off-kilter maniac who had his face medically altered to resemble Boris Karloff. Finally, there is Mortimer, the only family member who is seemingly alarmed by the deadly tendencies of his relatives.
Director Fran Arniotes hand-picked “Arsenic and Old Lace” to open StageDoor’s 2011-12 season.
“Even though the original show was produced over 70 years ago, I love the parallels between then and now,” Arniotes said. “When it was first staged in 1941, we were going off to war and audiences needed a little escapism. Today we find ourselves in tough economic times, and the show still offers the same cathartic escape.”
What more could a theater-goer wish for in bleak economic times than a comedy that will make them laugh out loud but is infused with just the right amount of ghastly to make the chilly nights leading up to Halloween a little more spine-tingling?

Sara Miller, a freelance writer and a resident of Evergreen, lives with her husband, two children and a dog.