Killing them with kindness: ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ plays in Springville
Martin Schetselaar (left) and Aaron Evensen star in "Arsenic and Old Lace," produced by the Springville Playhouse.
Arlene McGregor (left), Kathy Llewellyn and Paul McNiven star in "Arsenic and Old Lace," produced by the Springville Playhouse.
Every family has its quirks. Sometimes your uncle believes he is Theodore Roosevelt. Sometimes your brother’s plastic surgeon makes him look like Boris Karloff. And sometimes you find out that your sweet aunts have been killing lonely gentlemen and collecting their bodies in the basement.
For Mortimer Brewster, the nervous man at the center of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” his family is all of those things.
“The play really is about a kind of strange, quirky family that apparently has insanity in their genes,” said Dave Chapa, director of Springville Playhouse’s production of the show. “So you have a bunch of really interesting characters, and then when the aunts are found out to be doing mercy killings, that’s when the story really takes off.”
The aunts, played by Arlene McGregor and Kathy Llewellyn, are not villainous in their killings — though they do seem to enjoy it to some excess. When gentlemen with no families or direction stay in their spare room, they gleefully poison them and bury them in the basement.
A collection of hats sit onstage, trophies of their geriatric generosity.
“I guess some would say it’s a bit dark in that, you know, there’s a murder or two in (the show),” Chapa said. “But I really don’t know that (darkness) plays too much into it. The humor is mostly in the situation. I wouldn’t go so far as calling it dark humor, but it is just really funny.”
The show was written by Joseph Kesselring and debuted on Broadway in 1941. Frank Capra directed the film version starring Cary Grant three years later.
“This is one of my favorite shows since I was a kid,” Chapa said. “Watching the movie with Cary Grant is one of my favorite things. It’s always been a Halloween tradition for me.”
The show is at once a Halloween comedy and a modernist satire of theater criticism and theater itself. Mortimer is a theater critic who pans shows before he sees them “to save time” and who has no qualms about skipping the rest of a show after intermission.
Theater tropes are satirized in the show as well, especially in a scene in which Mortimer berates a play he saw, unbeknown that the situation he is deriding is happening all around him in real time — and that he is giving his aggressors ideas as he mocks the play he saw.
In order for that scene to work, and others like it, the humor must come from the situation, not over-the-top performances.
“I keep telling the cast that in order to make it funny, they have to play it straight,” Chapa said. “It’s kind of interesting that way. But they pulled it off really, really well.”
Of course, there are moments where more overt comedic performances are called for, as when Mortimer begins to melt down when he begins to see murder tainting the furniture, or when Uncle “Teddy” charges up the stairs.
To make all the performances and all the characters fit together, Chapa said that “it’s incredibly important” for this show in particular to have a strong cast.
“This is an ensemble piece, so if one cast member fails, the whole thing falls apart,” he said. “The cast has made it a lot of fun. This group is a really good group, and they make it really enjoyable. … We worked really hard on coming together as a group and working well together. We all get along really well.”
Chapa said that the tone on set changes when the production is a comedy, even a dark comedy.
“When we did ‘The Crucible,’ which I was involved in, the feeling on set was much different,” Chapa said. “We were a very close-knit group. It was a larger cast, and we were a very close-knit group, but in this case, there was a lot of just kind of looseness and friendship. We goof off all the time and it just sort of adds to the show.”
Chapa said that “Arsenic and Old Lace” is “one of those traditional Halloween shows,” and that the company has done a variety of different styles of seasonal shows in the past.
“Springville Playhouse has done everything from the haunted house sort of thing — we did ‘Dracula’ quite a few years ago, with lots of blood special effects and creepiness like that,” he said. “It was a great show. This one is more a bit of a dark comedy, I guess you could call it, but it’s one that is more Halloween fun.”
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
What: Springville Playhouse’s performance of the dark comedy
When: Performances Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 7:30 p.m. through Oct. 29
Where: Merit Academy, 1440 W. Center St., Springville