Poison Goes Down with a Smile

‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ charms audiences with an energetic affability

Poet Samuel Coleridge described drama as “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” I was reminded of this quote upon revisiting Joseph Kesselring’s classic comedy Arsenic and Old Lace in a sharp production that transports a theatergoer with delight into a world of unrepentant absurdity.

Arsenic, dark and disturbing on some levels, yet ridiculous and hilariously funny throughout, definitely requires a suspension of disbelief for enjoyment.

It’s about a situation so fantastic and characters that are so lovably insane that an audience not only tolerates, but comes to like the play’s murderous protagonists.

The main characters in Arsenic are theater critic Mortimer Brewster (William R. Holmgren ’04) and his sweet, grandmotherly aunts Abby (Jamie E. Smith ’02) and Martha Brewster (Andrea D. Leahy ’05). Their priceless interactions follow the about-to-be-married Mortimer, as he discovers that his seemingly saintly aunts have been murdering lonely old men with their homemade arsenic-laced elderberry wine.

The production benefits from a gifted cast who, under the direction of Katherine M. Bencowitz ’03, clearly understands and conveys the fundamental source of the play’s humor. It is evident that all the actors know their characters inside and out; more importantly, their performances are fearlessly over-the-top, without being grating. The result is an audience often rocking with laughter.

Leading the merriment are Smith and Leahy, both wonderful as Mortimer’s kindly aunts. The strength of their performances lies in their effective juxtaposition of their gruesome acts with a genuine belief in their righteousness.

Particularly illustrative of this delicate balance is a scene where Leahy, urged to lie about the dead bodies in her cellar, indignantly exclaims that she refuses to “tell a fib.” Leahy conveys the strength of a woman who cares about living truthfully and decently and has somehow reconciled multiple murders with her sense of moral integrity.

In a comedy full of screwball personalities, Holmgren’s Mortimer provides a refreshing dose of sanity as the apparent straight-man. By the end of the show, however, he is as neurotic as anybody else on stage.

Holmgren masterfully depicts the transition of a composed, confident husband-to-be into a frantic, hysterical wreck. He also does tremendous work in the scene where he discovers a victim of his aunts and registers chilling shock and comic thrills in a long moment of silence filled only with his expressive gestures.

Holmgren finds a psychosis-ridden match in his fiancée Elaine Harper, played by Katharine F. O’Brien ’04. Another example of a character with a bit of a split-personality, Elaine vacillates between the submissive, lovable girl-next-door and the spoiled Daddy’s girl who will not be denied. O’Brien is perfect for the role, and she surprises and delights the audience with her entirely unexpected personality changes.

Though the audience winds up rooting for most of Arsenic’s disturbed oddballs, Mortimer’s brother Jonathan is the obligatory bad guy. Portrayed by Robert A. O’Donnell ’04, he is a serial killer that happens to choose an inopportune time to visit his childhood home. O’Donnell does an excellent job as the villain, lending Jonathan an appropriately sinister voice and laugh.

Christian E. K. Lerch ’04 also gives a memorably hilarious portrayal of Teddy, the crazy but relatively harmless third brother, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt.

One of the play’s greatest strengths is that by its conclusion, deranged characters and convoluted plotting no longer seem strange. Everything seems to have its own internal logic, which becomes embraceable because the acting is so passionate and the laughs so consistent.

In a show that throws everything at the audience but the proverbial kitchen sink, it might be nice to find a message about human nature, our times, or the power of art. There was none. But walking out of the theater after the show, it really doesn’t matter. Arsenic creates a fantastic world not necessarily to comment on this one, but for the sake of sheer enjoyment. And that’s exactly what this production provides.