by Terrance Mc Arthur
Once upon in Brooklyn, two elderly sisters rented out a room in their house. They welcomed lonely bachelors into their home . . . and the men were never seen again.
The Brewster sisters are at it again in Arsenic and Old Lace, a River City Theatre Company production at the Reedley Opera House through October 2.Mortimer Brewster (Jacob Alvarado), a cynical theatre critic, is in love with the minister’s daughter (April Valle) who lives across the graveyard from his aunts, Abby (Dora Ledesma) and Martha (Florence Molano), who have nearly filled the basement with their dozen charity murders, assisted by home-brewed elderberry wine laced with a cocktail of poisons. The lethal ladies are part of an eccentric family; the nephew who lives with them, Teddy (Preston Ward) thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt and charges up the staircase like it is San Juan Hill. The other nephew, Jonathan (Cameron Ward), is a wanted murderer who looks like a certain horror-movie star, thanks to the work of his often-drunken partner in crime, a plastic surgeon named Dr. Einstein (Steven Haynes). Jonathan has his twelfth victim in the trunk of the car, and he needs a place to dump the body. Oddly enough, there is a corpse-sized hole in the basement, dug as a lock in the Panama Canal by Teddy for the latest “yellow fever” casualty.
Joseph Kesselring’s script was fall-down funny in 1941, and it still packs the laughs. Stevie Barnett’s direction speeds along at a goodly pace, and the jokes click into place with slapstick, outrageous reactions, and precise choreography.
Alvarado brings frustration to a fine art as he tries to explain to the kind old ladies why serial killing is not a good choice of hobby. He doesn’t go totally overboard like Cary Grant in the 1944-released film Frank Capra directed. There is a slight reserve that keeps his humanness intact.Ledesma and Molano are a well-oiled machine as the aunts. They are matter-of-fact when mentioning their murders, and offended by Jonathan’s crude methods. They are sympathetic, and could almost get you to approve of euthanasia.
Cameron Ward is thin and gangly, with flying hair and a stitched-up face. He is menacing and snide, similar to Mortimer, but without the self-awareness. One of the classic sequences finds Mortimer railing about how actors in mystery dramas ignore the danger around them, while Jonathan follows those directions to tie up Mortimer. Haynes had a soppy German accent, and didn’t try to sound like Peter Lorre, who played Dr. Einstein in the movie.Preston Ward was big and cuddly as Teddy, with a childlike enthusiasm and a shrewd understanding of how things in his fantasy world fit into reality. Valle was cheerful and terrified, confused and adoring as needed.
I have a fondness for Arsenic and Old Lace, dating back to my childhood. My mother let me stay up after midnight to watch the film version, so I could learn how to do a Peter Lorre imitation for an upcoming audition. This production keeps the joy and mayhem running at full speed. Come to Reedley for a cup of pre-Halloween cheer.
The historic 1903 building is at 1720 10th Street in Reedley. For information and to purchase tickets, go to their website or call 559-638-6500. Elderberry wine, anyone?
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors. You can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, and also on podbean.