Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Vpstart Crow Arsenic and Old Lace

By • Oct 2nd, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring
Vpstart Crow
Gregory Family Theatre, Manassas, VA
Through October 7th
2:30 with one intermission
$20/$15 Students
Reviewed September 28th, 2012

Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic play, playing on Broadway for three years in the early 1940’s. The Brewster sisters have decided their mission in life is to help lonely old men into the next world by serving them their “special” elderberry wine. Mortimer, the nephew of the spinsters, has recently decided to marry, and his long-lost brother Jonathan returns to make the Brewster home his base of operations for his new “business” venture. Meanwhile Mortimer’s other brother Teddy believes he is actually Teddy Roosevelt. Mortimer discovers his aunt’s plans and has to deal with juggling the police and his family.

Other than a few very funny slapstick moments (notably because when they occurred they were a surprise), this production was marked with problems and half-hearted efforts.

The acting overall was uneven. Bryan Friel made a strong effort as Mortimer, with a good chemistry with his fiancĂ©e Elaine (Chelsea Mayo), although he never quite managed to convey a sense of urgency at his crazy family’s predicaments. The aunts Abby (Carole Preston) and Martha (Dorothy) were mostly successful being little old ladies, although getting into and out of a sofa is a bit more difficult when you have arthritis. The police officers (Matt Stephan, Ben Jablonowski, and Chaz Pando) brought comic relief to the stage and were a nice team.

There were a few moments when an actor forgot his line, and the other actors onstage weren’t able to cover the mistake, leaving an awkward pause in the scene. The costumes were presentable, although the policeman’s uniforms looked remarkably like a priest’s outfit, complete with white collar. The patrolmen also didn’t wear a police badge.

The lighting design was bizarre. Possibly the design was attempting to represent the time of day through the lighting, but the entire performance was in a fairly dim light. Except for the scene changes, which were done in a full light. The final scene change (from overnight to morning) appeared to confuse the actors as well as the audience. Actors were also in shadow as they faced stage left.

Teddy played a bugle several times throughout the show. It may have been more effective to have a sound effect play than his warbled, muted attempt at a bugle call. One of the calls was supposed to cause a huge surprised reaction from the people in the living room, but the weak call didn’t match the reaction it generated.

The playing space of the Gregory Family Theater is huge. The set pieces were spread across the area resulting in a lot of extra work by the actors as they traversed the stage and tried to work with their fellow actors on the opposite side of the expanse. The set pieces were on platforms, which could have easily been positioned closer together, making for a better use of space.

There weren’t many props used in this production, but the dinner scene used no props at all. A Brewster sister carried the meal in, but since her hands were empty, it caused an odd reaction from the audience. Another notable prop was the body that was carried through the window. The laughter the “body” caused wasn’t the laughter expected. The moment had a lot of potential, but the distraction caused by the appearance of the “body” wasted the build-up to that point of the show.

Director Rachael Murray also made some interesting blocking choices, as several scenes had actors delivering their lines upstage away from the audience. The pacing was a bit slow at times, although that could be a byproduct of the large playing space.

This funny script deserves better than the weak, distracting technical treatment it received in this production.

From the Director

When I first read Arsenic and Old Lace, I wasn’t surprised. It didn’t strike me as a literary masterpiece. It wasn’t something particularly profound. But I laughed. A lot. And sometimes groaned. It’s a play that makes us laugh at what should-by all accounts-be considered morbid. Why do we laugh at something as serious as murder? What is wrong with us?

Upon several more readings, I began to se even more examples of things we shouldn’t laugh at. While Teddy’s Rooseveltian antics are a hoot, his aunts hint that his delusions stem from a sad, lost place. Abby and Martha grew up surrounded by death, and they seem to have narrowly escaped a gruesome childhood (albeit, with some unusual proclivities). Jonathan Brewster, who appears to have stepped right out of a horror movie, struggles with self-image and takes pleasure in torture. While Mortimer appears to be the most “normal” of the bunch, even he cannot seem to make sense of what is going on around him. We see him slowly lose his mind as the play progresses.

Sometimes, I think people take theatre too seriously-especially those of us who do it. Joseph Kesselring uses the character of Mortimer Brewster, theatre critic, to keep theatre in the forefront of our minds. Throughout Arsenic and Old Lace, Kesselring pokes fun not only at other plays, but also at his own. He reminds us to not take theatre so seriously. It can be deep, thoughtful, and heart-wrenching, but it can also be entertaining, fun, and irreverent.

On that note, if theatre is (as we fancy it to be) a reflection of life, is Kesselring perhaps telling us not to take life so seriously? After all, we could die at any moment and potentially end up as a corpse in a window-seat! Maybe we don’t have time to be serious. Maybe we have to laugh to get us through the more unseemly aspects of life.

I hope you’ll find more than a few laughs in our production. Enjoy them while you can. You never know when a kindly old lady might offer you a charitably potent glass of elderberry wine.

Enjoy the show!

Rachael Murray


  • Abby Brewster: Carole Preston
  • Martha Brewster: Dorothy Scheutze
  • Teddy Brewster: John Klnk
  • Reverend Harper: James Ginther
  • Mortimer Brewster: Bryan Friel
  • Elaine Harper: Chelsea Mayo
  • Mr. Gibbs: Eric Trumbell
  • Jonathan Brewster: Gene Schmiel
  • Dr. Einstein: Bob Rosenberg
  • Officer O’Hara: Matt Stephen
  • Officer Brophy: Ben Jablonowski
  • Officer Klein: Chaz Pando
  • Lieutenant Rooney: Eric Trumbull
  • Mr. Witherspoon: Geoffrey Baskir

Production Team

  • Artistic Director: Lisa Anne Bailey
  • Managing Director: Shellie Jablonowski
  • Producer: Cory Okouchi
  • Director: Rachael Murray
  • Stage Manager: Cheryl Cordingly
  • Set Construction: Dan Clark
  • Set Designer: Maria Johnson
  • Lighting Designer: Stephen Winkler
  • Costume Designer: Ben Kelley
  • Makeup: Kelly Verdon
  • Poster Designer: Cory Okouchi
  • Program Designer: Bob Smith

Disclaimer: Vpstart Crow provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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