Dated Comedy Still Brings the Humor

by Regina Ford

arsenic-19-flyerArsenic and Old Lace, directed by Dan Reichel, at the Community Players Playhouse on Oracle, is a farcical dark comedy, written by Joseph Kesselring. The play opened on Broadway on January 10, 1941 and ran 1,444 performances. Frank Capra directed the iconic film version starring Cary Grant in 1944.

This classic, and much-loved chestnut of a play, was an introduction to theatre for many theatre-goers. I think I’ve seen the play at least 10 times, and I wasn’t certain I could sit through it again. Let’s just say that I am very glad that I did.

Here is a tale of Martha and Abby Brewster, two cheerfully eccentric, but sweet and sincere maiden aunties. The women conduct mercy killings by poisoning lonely old men, a practice they believe is charitable by providing them with an early exit from this world. They give each man a proper Christian burial in the cellar of their quaint Brooklyn home. Their nephew, and cynical, dramatic critic, Mortimer Brewster, spends most of the play attempting to clean up his aunts’ messy killing spree and at the same time appease his fiancée, Elaine Harper, the daughter of the minister,  who desperately wants to get married. 

The plot gets more complicated when Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer’s evil, estranged brother and career criminal returns to their Brooklyn home. Jonathan is sporting a Boris Karloff-like face that has been surgically butchered to disguise his identity by the hard-drinking Dr. Einstein. The quack is a fan of Boris Karloff and used his face as a blueprint for Jonathan’s plastic surgery. Then there’s wacky brother, Teddy Brewster, who insists he is President Theodore Roosevelt and believes that the corpses that keep piling up are victims of yellow fever. He enthusiastically buries them in the cellar which he believes is Panama. Mortimer assumes Teddy has finally gone over the edge and is killing the men until he discovers another body in the window seat.

Arsenic and Old Lace is dated, no question, but the shtick is still charming. The show is a quaint interpretation of subject matter that in reality is borderline disturbing. At the time it ran on Broadway and in 1944 when it was a star-studded film, the atrocities of war were at their pinnacle. Arsenic and Old Lace offered escapism from those atrocities. Humor, even surrounding dark topics, is a way of coping for many and I believe the playwright knew this. The  Brewster sisters survive their daily lives with a warped religious explanation for murder. Their idea of salvation is twisted, but how has that changed in the last seven decades? Murder, assisted suicide, mental health issues (not a topic talked about openly at the time) are all issues that have become part of our reality. “Arsenic and Old Lace” is a history lesson of sorts. The sad truth is history repeats itself.

The director’s program notes provide insight into many of the play’s references from yesteryear that may be unfamiliar to audience members. Reichel managed to successfully capture the time period of the play and the set added to the feel of the time. Nikki Belio’s wallpaper did the set proud. I did have to giggle to myself when I noticed the black and white shoe on the first corpse was a Reebok (it was written on the sole).

Joanne Anderson (Martha Brewster) and Bobbi Whitson (Abby Brewster) bonded beautifully onstage. Anderson nailed the trusting persona of a sweet elderly lady so much so that I wanted to drink the arsenic-laced elderberry wine.

The cast had some heavy hitters who embraced their roles. Paul Hammack (Mortimer Brewster) had the bounding energy to keep the lengthy plot flowing with a character style that transported me back in time. Scott Berg (Jonathan Brewster) has a huge stage presence and offered a non-stereotypical twist to his character. Mike Manolakes (Teddy Brewster) took charge immediately and offered a believable burst of zaniness and light to the stage. His facial expressions were addicting. Larry Gutman (Dr. Einstein) played the creepiness of his deranged character with gusto, and Elaine Harper (Shann Oliver) provided the ideal balance and stronger female in all the insanity. 

The Community Players production of Arsenic and Old Lace is a trip back to theatre as I remember from decades ago and an example of how it should be done, by dedicated actors who are brave enough to revive roles from one of the classics.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through September 22nd at The Community Players Playhouse. For tickets, visit: communityplayerstucson.org.

 

       

 

What to Expect Going Down the Rabbit Hole

by China Young

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire is a wonderfully scripted story that explores five individuals processing the loss of a child. This production, directed by Vince Flynn  running at Community Players, is sad, funny, poignant, and viscerally relatable. Before I get into any more details, I want to strongly encourage you to go see Rabbit Hole. The night I attended did not have the audience these performers or this story deserve.

The cast of Rabbit Hole. Photo by Paul Brunelle, courtesy of The Community Players.

The cast of Rabbit Hole. Photo by Paul Brunelle, courtesy of The Community Players.

Now, the story. Becca Corbet (Meagan Jones), is a stay-at-home mom to Danny, who is killed in a tragic accident at four years old. Jones’s performance is honest and impactful. I could feel the depth of her pain, and how, at times, she resisted dealing with it. Eric Rau brings truth and vulnerability to Becca’s husband Howie as he attempts to heal his wife’s grief by recapturing the passion they once had even though he is simultaneously holding onto his own grief by privately watching old home movies of his late son. Becca and Howie struggle to find common ground following the loss of their son. They seem to choose different, and often conflicting, methods of grieving as they strive to learn how to live with the pain. Jones, Rau, and Flynn never abandon this subtext. Whether it is present in the spatial relationships between the couple or in the inability to reconnect to one another emotionally, this struggle is present throughout.

Izzy (Michele Holland), Becca’s younger sister, serves as a sort of beacon for second chances. We learn early in the first scene that she is pregnant, something that isn’t easily shared considering the family’s recent loss. As is often the case with being the youngest sibling, she has had the privilege of few responsibilities and the freedom to “f— up” and she believes having a baby will help her get her act together. Holland gives Izzy an appropriate amount of “last born” attitude and naivete, though she isn’t without her moments of mature profundity.

Nat (Sydney Flynn), Becca and Izzy’s mother, has also lost a child, her adult son. Though the circumstances surrounding his death and that of Danny’s are significantly different, she can’t help but compare the two in her attempts to console and relate to her daughter’s loss. Flynn is delightfully natural in her portrayal of Nat, fully embodying the wisdom of someone who has experienced deep levels of grief more than once in her life.

Finally, there is Jason Willette (Stephen Dunham), a teenager who writes a story for the grieving family as a sort of apology for having a role in the loss of their child. Dunham brings a natural innocence and kindness to Jason that supports and motivates Becca’s willingness to bring him into her home.

The technical elements of the show were hit and miss for me, although they did their part to support the world that was created by the director and actors. Sound design was disappointing. In addition to several cues misfiring, I yearned for transitional music, of which it completely lacked. Perhaps it was intentionally excluded from this production, but I believe this is a show that opens its audience up to their own levels of vulnerability in such a way that they need some musical interludes to help ride the arcs of the characters and process their own experience.

The set, designed and crafted by Scott Berg, Bobbi Whitson, and Eric Everts, is skillfully crafted and I was impressed at how every inch of available space was used to craft the Corbets’ home. My only critique is that it is very busy. There are a lot of patterns and conflicting decorative styles that distracted me from the action at times.

The costumes were simple and modern, and there seemed to be intentional color palettes that were used specifically between Becca and Nat. There is not a costume designer listed in their program leaving me to assume that it was a choice of the actors or a happy accident borne from the actors time and work together. Either way, it amplified the bond between the mother and daughter that now shared the experiencing of losing of a son.

Part of our mission of Taming of the Review is to ask “why tell this story and why tell it now?” For me that answer comes as the entire family is discussing the Kennedy family and, unironically, the variety of tragic deaths that the family has endured. Nat flippantly categorizes the private plane crashes and assassinations by crazed gunmen as “rich issues.” Despite the humor in it, I found myself suddenly considering all the lives that have been lost to families across this country and across the world to “crazed gunmen.” Death, no matter how rich or poor, big or small, old or young, is not a “rich issue.” That loss is universal.

The characters in Rabbit Hole are all dealing with loss in their own way.The conflict among them is driven by their lack of acceptance and understanding that every single one of them is grieving differently. This show is a gentle acknowledgement that it is difficult to make space for others grief, especially if it manifests differently from our own. It also perhaps nudges us to be more accepting of those differences, even while experiencing our own grief. I think it is safe to say our society could use more than a gentle reminder of this as we struggle to understand and overcome our growing divisions on a daily basis.  

Image courtesy of The Community Players.

Image courtesy of The Community Players.

Rabbit Hole continues at Community Players, 1881 N Oracle Rd, Tucson, AZ 85705, on Friday at 7:30, Saturday at 7:30, and Sunday at 2:00 through May 19th. You can buy tickets online CommunityPlayersTucson.org or by calling 887-6239.