Arsenic & Old Lace Theater Review - A Good Ole Fashion Great Time at the Theater

The aunts welcome home their favorite nephew

Arsenic & Old Lace is one of American theater’s most beloved classics. The story of two sweet aunties who invite gentlemen to tea where they spite the drinks with arsenic is infamous and timeless. So it surprised me to realize that the season opener of CenterStage in Baltimore, directed by Irene Lewis’, would be my very first time actually seeing a stage production.

Ian Kahn & Brynn O"Malley play the lovers in this Centerstage Production of Arsenic & Old Lace

I’ll try to sum up the plot in sixty seconds or less. Mortimer (Ian Kahn), the theater critic is in love with Elaine (Brynn O’Malley), the pastor’s daughter and the favorite nephew of community cornerstones Martha and Abby Brewster (Tana Hicken, Pamela Payton-Wright). On the same day that Mortimer proposes marriage to Elaine, he also discovers that one of the many charities his aunts performs is the poisoning elderly gentlemen who come looking for a room in their boarding house. Their reason: mercy killing of course; to save these poor souls from a long and drawn out twilight years of loneliness. Mortimer’s uncle and the aunts’ brother Teddy (John Ahlin), thinks he is President Teddy Roosevelt and dutifully sees to his responsibilities, which include leading the charge on San Juan Hill (aka dashing up the house stairs), digging trenches for the Panama Canal (aka graves in the basement) and disposing of the bodies of yellow fever (aka poisoned tea) victims.

John Campion & Carson Elrod are thick as thieves in this Centerstage production of Arsenic & Old Lace

Also in this ill-fated night, the bad seed of the family, nephew Jonathan (John Campion), has escaped from the prison for the criminally insane with the help of a German, self-proclaimed plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Carson Elrod), who’s botched operations have left Jonathan looking like Boris Karloff.  

Mortimer must hide the strange goings on from Elaine while keeping her from changing her mind about getting married, protect his aunts from both discovery which will lead to murder charges, and from the menacing Jonathan who schemes to take the boarding house away from the aunts, and find a way to keep uncle Teddy from blowing that blasted bugle in the middle of the night. But first he has to go review a play. (Whew! How’d I do?)

Mortimer: "I love you. Get out!"

How do I begin to say how much I enjoyed this play? The performances were brilliant. Hicken and Payton-Wright portray elderly sisters who are innocently excited about death. They do the Lord’s good work after He shows them their late-life calling when a potential boarder dies in their arm chair. Their logic is unflappable and their dedication to properly burying the newly departed is solidified by their knowledge of multiple denominational funeral services. Ahlin’s presence on stage is a thing of pure joy, exactly what the oblivion of complete insanity must be like.

Tana Hicken & Pamela Payton-Wright are the doting and deadly aunts in this Centerstage production of Arsenic & Old Lace

Kahn’s Mortimer starts out as a smooth, suave character that quickly gets wounded tighter that a Swiss watch when he discovers the truth about the elderberry wine, and to the spectator’s delight, he spends the rest of the play reeling from one end of the set to the other. Sometimes he’s dancing with a pretty girl; other times he’s to scare off the aunts’ next hapless victim. But mostly Mortimer dashes to keep the window seat closed, lest the latest body be discovered. Kahn’s energy and comic timing are fantastic.

Damsel in distress

The set is love at first sight. Extended the entire length of the Pearlstone Theater’s proscenium stage, two levels high with ivory woodwork and antique furniture, the space was just magic. With the exception of electric candles, Tony Staiges set design created a fully functional space that actually felt like a home, with all hints of theatrical artifice and artificial lighting completely hidden.

From the choreography of the staging, to the meticulous rhythm between actors; between actor and audience, to classic double-takes, to the dizzying shifts of power back and forth between good and evil characters, this production handled every element superbly, a gilded example of comedy and fun presented to you by seasoned pros.

This is what happens to theater critics

I love that Martha and Abby have no fear of the dangerous world around them. They have complete confidence in the goodness of their souls and their actions. Moreover, they have complete faith in Mortimer when he says he will take care of everything. The way the body count becomes a competition between Jonathan and the aunts is simply delicious. I loved how broad and desperate Ian Kahn plays our hero Mortimer. I loved how our ingénue Elaine could turn from sweet to sassy with the turn of an ankle. I loved how Campion’s creepy performance makes the audience fearful for the Aunts when they don’t know to be afraid for themselves.

I love it when a performance makes me laugh out loud. Truly well done.  

Thank you, Irene Lewis. Thank you, CenterStage.

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