John Kidder (l) as Jonathan Brewster menaces Cecelia McLean’s Elaine Harper during a rehearsal of Arsenic and Old Lace

Theatre diary part 1: Finding Mortimer

Winding Rivers Arts' latest theatre production has one problem: no leading man. Will the show go on?

It’s autumn, which means that the Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society (WRAPS) has embarked on another theatre production. Following the success of My Fair Lady last year, and Shirley Valentine in the spring, the group has decided on another well-known piece: the classic black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, first performed in 1941.

The play concerns two sweet spinster sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster, who live quietly in Brooklyn and whose kindness and charity are legendary. One nephew, Teddy—who thinks he is American president Theodore Roosevelt—lives with them, while another nephew, Mortimer, is a frequent visitor, as he has fallen in love with Elaine Harper, who lives next door to the sisters.

However, the sweet sisters harbour a dark secret, which Mortimer discovers at the same time that his other brother Jonathan—an escaped murderer on the run from the law—arrives at the aunt’s house with an accomplice and a dead body in tow, looking for a hiding place. Much comedy mayhem ensures, as Mortimer attempts to cope with Teddy’s lunacy, deal with Jonathan and his latest victim, come to grips with his aunts’ deadly “hobby”, throw the police off the scent, and placate an increasingly puzzled Elaine, who wonders why her fiancé has suddenly gone cold.

Auditions were held last month, and many of what has become the WRAPS repertory company of actors find themselves cast in the play (including yours truly as Abby). There is one major problem, however: we don’t have a Mortimer. Cecelia McLean has been cast as Elaine, so Mortimer needs to be on the youngish side. The cast has a first read-through of the play—sans Mortimer—in late September, which ends with director Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan declaring “We will find a Mortimer.”

And lo and behold, we do: Daniel Nichols, who is not only the requisite age, but proves himself to be a natural once blocking starts. Blocking is the tedious (but necessary) start of the rehearsal process, where the cast goes through the play line by line and the director tells everyone where he or she should be (or move to) on a given line. At the moment we’re rehearsing in a classroom at the HUB, with doors and stairs marked out with tape on the floor; once we get tow the actual set, blocking is apt to change, which is why we’re all using pencil to make our notes.

I’m unable to make the first rehearsal, but am at the second, pleased to see so many familiar faces and to meet Daniel. We work on the last third of the play, with many stops and starts as Mavourneen explains exactly what she wants, or decides that something would be better done another way. There’s much laughing as Connie Walkem and Oriana Dubois, playing police officers, drag John Kidder—murderous brother Jonathan—off-stage. “Are there stairs?” John asks, a worried note in his voice, and is reassured to hear that there are none.

The third rehearsal covers part of the script that contains a fair amount of “business”; that is, some fairly complicated scenes that require a lot of very precise blocking. John’s dog Bailey—the unofficial WRAPS mascot who is now on her fifth play—wandering on and off the “stage”, and looking wistfully at the human cast members who are eagerly gobbling up Cecelia’s fresh-baked cookies.

At the end of the rehearsal, Mavourneen sets out the schedule for October, and we discuss the performance dates. Opening night is set for November 12, and there’s a lot of work to do between now and then. The journey is going to be a fun one, as always; stay tuned for more

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