In 1941, Americans needed a diversion from their worries about the potential of being drawn into a world war — and Broadway met that need with “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a quirky black comedy about sweet little old ladies with a deadly interpretation of “charity begins at home.” The play was a smash hit, and in 1944 was made into a popular movie starring Cary Grant.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” opens at 7:30 p.m. May 13 at Stageworks Northwest Theatre in downtown Longview. It runs weekends through May 29.
Director Johnny Winningham said he finds the play’s offbeat humor and crazy situations delightful.
A mixture of screwball comedy, political satire and the macabre, “Arsenic” centers on two elderly sisters, Abby Brewster (Kathleen Allen) and Martha Brewster (Mary Lynn Stephenson), who dispatch lonely old men with a glass of poisoned elderberry wine. After each death, they tell their delusional nephew, Teddy (Peter Curtis) — who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt — that “there’s been another yellow fever victim,” and he heads to Panama (the cellar) to dig another grave.
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When another nephew, Mortimer (Ethan Feider), discovers what they’ve been doing, he panics. He’s just proposed marriage to his girlfriend, Elaine (Jeannie Choi) — but how can he marry her if his aunts are murderers?
“Mortimer normally has everything under control and planned five steps ahead,” said Feider, “and then he’s suddenly confronted with something he never thought he’d be confronted with.”
That’s the cue for the arrival of Jonathan (Joey LeBard) — brother of Teddy and Mortimer, and a multiple murderer looking for a hideout. He’s accompanied by Dr. Einstein (Michael McElliott), a plastic surgeon of dubious talent who gives Jonathan a new face every time his current mug gets in the newspapers.
Jonathan’s glowering look and facial scars remind everyone of Boris Karloff, whose mere name is guaranteed to infuriate Jonathan. (At that point in his career Karloff was king of the horror genre, including playing Frankenstein’s monster in three movies. Karloff originated the role of Dr. Einstein on Broadway and also played him in the film.)
Kathleen Allen is making her Stageworks debut as Abby. A New Jersey native who recently lived in Tennessee, she moved to the local area in December and is quickly making friends in the theater community. “It’s wonderful to be back onstage again after two years,” she said.
Choi, who recently played an elf in the “Mondo Holiday Follies,” is playing a romantic leading role for the first time. She felt intimidated by Elaine’s line load, but was so excited to be cast that she buckled down and was the first actor to be off book.
Also in the cast are Adam Wolfer (the Rev. Dr. Harper), Corey Farmer (Officer Brophy), Jonah Fa’amuli (Officer Klein), Steve McIlhinny (Mr. Gibbs and Lt. Rooney), Patrick Hale (Officer O’Hara) and Robert Mumford (Mr. Witherspoon). Kevin Haddenham is stage manager.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” is sponsored by the Jeweler’s Bench.