by Joseph Kesselring
One 15-minute Intermission
Meet the Brewsters: spinster sisters, Abby and Martha, dedicated to charity, family, and poisoning lonely, old men with their homemade arsenic-laced elderberry wine. And who can forget their loving nephews? Teddy, who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, Jonathan (a Boris Karloff look-alike psychopath), and Mortimer, a likable drama critic who navigates his homicidal family, his fiancée, and the Brooklyn PD. Christy Brandt and Annie Butler star in this classic, smash-hit dark comedy that the New York Times called “so funny that none of us will ever forget it.”
Asst. Stage Manager
Karloff Make-up Design
Jake K. Harbour
Rick D. Wasserman
Rev. Dr. Harper
Anne F. Butler
Rick D. Wasserman*
Spencer D. Christensen
Arsenic and Old Lace is presented by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.
Original Broadway production by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
For a play that has so much to admire and treasure, it is truly saying something that the greatest legacy of Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 Arsenic and Old Lace is its staying power. In fact, this marks the third production of Arsenic in CRT’s history! As a director, the “stalwart” status of this cherished chestnut of the American theater elicits multiple strong feelings simultaneously: I remember reading the script and finding it equal parts intimidating, exciting, and… stale. And that’s when it dawned on me—mounting the third version of this play at CRT is an invitation, nay, a mandate to look at it anew. My collaborators were across-the-board as invigorated as I to really analyze what the play has been, is, and can be.
Kesselring created a Brewster clan of two merry murdering matrons, a Theodore Roosevelt-impersonator, a Boris Karloff look-alike, and a theatre reviewer… a motley crew that can’t get any wackier! These monster personalities indicate quite clearly that Kesselring intended for performers and directors to explore where farcical comedy and period horror overlap. When I really dug deep (pun intended!), it became more and more evident that the tactics used in creating suspense are often the same for making people laugh. This is the lens through which we approached every aspect of our set, costumes, lighting and performances.
After plowing through every page and every word, I realized one needn’t look any further than the title. There should be plenty of “arsenic” and plenty of “lace.” In what is seen and heard, we wanted the dark and the fluffy to collide. Thematically, too, wrapped within a farcical romp is comment after comment, jab after jab of social and cultural issues that still ring true over 75 years later. Early in the play when one Brewster sister explains how she approaches her famous quince jam recipe, we find the best explanation of just what kind of balance Kesselring endeavored to find in his play: “We always put a little apple in with it to take the tartness out.” I hope our recipe is just as appetizing and… well, killer!
SOME THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW
ABOUT THIS AMERICAN CLASSIC
1.) Many critics believe that Joseph Kesselring intended the Brewster house as a metaphor for the dark side of American history. Mortimer’s attempts to balance his love for his Aunts with his family’s murderous history is a metaphor for every American’s struggle with the contradictions of American myth and our often violent history.
2.) Although Boris Karloff, an icon of horror films, originated the role of Jonathan on Broadway, he did not appear in Frank Capra’s movie version. His cast mates Josephine Hull and Jean Adair (the Aunts), along with John Alexander (Teddy) did. The producers insisted that Karloff remain with the show on Broadway because his star power was a box office draw. Karloff was replaced with Raymond Massey, most famous for playing Abraham Lincoln, in an inspired bit of casting.
3.) The first version of this play was called Bodies in Our Cellar and was a melodrama/horror play. Kesselring mailed it to actor Dorothy Lindsay, thinking she might be good for one of the two murderous aunts. Her husband, playwright and Broadway producer Howard Lindsay heard her laughing riotously while reading the script. He read it and concurred: it would make a fabulous farce if they pushed it farther in that direction. Howard Lindsay and producing partner Russel
Crouse (best known as the team behind The Sound of Music) can take a lot of credit for turning the play into the hit comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.
4.) The “murderous old lady” plot line may have been inspired by actual murders that occurred in Windsor, Connecticut in the early 20th century. Amy Archer-Gilligan, ran a home for the elderly, promising her boarders full care until they died. After paying their $1,000 fee for lifetime care, their lives proved remarkably short. She is estimated to have killed over 40 people with Arsenic and other poisons.
5.) The play ends a bit differently from Capra’s popular 1944 film, though it was originally intended to be the same. According to Turner Classic Movies’ notes on the film, “a scene at the end of the story, in which Mr. Witherspoon, played by Edward Everett Horton, becomes the aunts’ last victim, was shot and included in preview prints of the film. Because of poor audience reaction to the screen demise of the popular character actor, however, the scene was removed from release prints.”