Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 6, 2017

Arsenic and Old Lace

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through August 19, 2017
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
The sweetest, most proper old ladies in the Berkshires reside at Berkshire Theatre. The mission of the duo, one in which they take great pride, is to bring happiness to lonely, senior, gentlemen. How? By murdering them with their home-made elderberry wine. One sip; out like a light…forever. With such a macabre story, based on a true-life serial killer from Windsor, CT in the early 1900’s, one could only expect a stage retell to be a comedy? True. In fact, playwright Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” is easily one of the funniest plays (then movies) written for American theatre.

Set in the home of the Brewster sisters are the numerous comings and goings of family members, most of whom are strange, to say the least – lots of antics with doors and the all-important window seat. To quote one of the actors, “Instead of a farcical sex romp [a common theatre plot], this is a farcical death romp.”

At the center of the large cast are Mia Dillon and Harriet Harris (the sisters) who portray sincere, well-meaning partners as they knock off a dozen visitors at their boarding house. Dillion, who plays naivete with aplomb, and Harris, who plays intelligence with bravado, are perfect in their roles and make a flawless team. The sisters show mutual respect to each other, as do the actresses.

The Brewster nephews, each a bit daft in his own way, populate the house. Timothy Gulan lovingly depicts a wannabe Teddy Roosevelt, forever “charging” upstairs to San Juan or digging in the basement for the Panama Canal. Matt Sullivan sternly portrays a Frankenstein look-alike with a twinkle in his eye. Graham Rowat creates a befuddled, extremely funny Mortimer. While no one, past or present, can compare himself to Cary Grant (see the movie), Rowat excels at slow burns, dead pan, and quick reactions to others.

Between scenes, at intermission, and background turn-of-the-century ragtime music provides a whimsical and literal tone to “Arsenic.” Lighting, too, is important, foreshadowing and accentuating the ghoulish, yet hysterically amusing, plot elements.

In addition to the marvelous acting of Dillon and Harris, the “stars” are Randall Parsons’ flawlessly designed set, and director Gregg Edelman’s spot-on pacing and timing.