The cast of Arsenic and Old Lace; including five young actors (front row) who took part in a small play written for them by Barbara Roden.

Teamwork and talent bring ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ to life

A review of the latest Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society's play says this classic comedy never goes out of style.

There are some things that are never dated. A good farce is one of them.

Shakespeare’s are immortal. Audiences never tire of them. Why? Because they are a good laugh. The kind of belly laugh that makes you leave the theatre chuckling at the bizarre absurdities of the human species. Joseph Kesselring got his ideas for his farce Arsenic and Old Lace from the major morbid happenings of the day gleaned from the newspapers, coupled with his personal experience while living in a boarding house.

Opening night at the HUB on November 12 couldn’t have been a better antidote to the sober truth of wars remembered the day before. The Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society once again produced a play to a full house. The audience was treated to the mad, and ultimately successful, production of a cast clearly enjoying every moment of it.

The complexities of the plot required total attention. When you are dealing with a large cast of characters, most of them insane to one degree or another, you have to keep them moving in the right direction. Director Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan did just that, with her usual insightful attention to the details of character, pace, timing, nuance, and above all humour. The only supposedly sane characters in the play—nephew Mortimer Brewster, played by Daniel Nichols, a newcomer to the theatrical scene here in Ashcroft, and Elaine Harper, his fiancée, played by Cecelia McLean—held the whole farce together, as they were intended to do. But even these two reflected the hyper over-reactions of the other characters.

When two old spinster aunts who run a boarding house see nothing wrong with poisoning their tenants with elderberry wine laced with arsenic, then burying their bodies in the basement, you have the basis for a plot that is bound to turn the sane into panic mode. Barbara Roden plays the “protective” aunt, Abby, who reasons out the actions of herself and her sister with a coolness that is neither chilling nor alarming. She’s as natural as anybody’s maiden aunt. On the other hand, you have the excitable, kind of “dotty” but sweet, aunt, Martha, played by Marina Papais with deft enthusiasm.

Their nephew Mortimer eventually realizes, with horror, what his aunts have been up to. That’s when the fun begins, as Kesselring introduces two new characters to muddy up the plot. One is a Brewster just escaped from an institution in Indiana for the criminally insane: Jonathan, played with a sinister illogic by John Kidder (who is clearly enjoying every minute of his madness). The other is plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Jim McLean), the spent and somewhat confused doctor who has surgically changed Jonathan’s face. The poor doctor wishes he was somewhere else, knowing that the police will catch up with him and Jonathan sooner or later. McLean masters the German accent with ease.

Confused? Well, that’s not surprising. The plot thickens all too dramatically by the inclusion of the hallucinating Teddy Brewster, who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt. Jim Mertel plays the noisy, pith-helmeted character with gusto as he periodically charges out of the room, making everyone jump out of their skins. The bodies in the basement have, he thinks, died of yellow fever while building the Panama Canal.

Cecelia McLean as Elaine Harper and Daniel Nichols as Mortimer Brewster. Kelly Tuohey Photography.

The play begins quietly enough, with the visit to the aunts by the Revd. Dr. Harper, played with judicious care by Jan Schmitz. His daughter Elaine is determined to marry the drama critic, Mortimer. The pious reverend doctor doesn’t think a man who writes about plays, which he considers sinful, is an appropriate husband. He doesn’t realize that Elaine is hot to trot with the handsome, debonair critic.

Cecelia McLean has matured admirably as an actress under the tutelage of Varcoe-Ryan. The minor roles of the policemen, played by women, is a rather Shakespearian touch I personally appreciated, and proves once again that whatever a man can do, a woman can do just as well. Connie Walkem as Officer Brophy, and Oriana Dubois as Officer Klein, played their roles capably with voices mercifully unaltered. Pamela Ainge’s minor role as Mr. Gibbs was also suitably noisily convincing. Officer O’Hara, the unfulfilled, would-be playwright, was played by David Dubois, who showed once again that he can fill the role of almost anybody. Andrea Bona, as Mr. Witherspoon, is ripening well with a minor role that was nonetheless essential to round out the lengthy sequence of uncertainties. Lieutenant Rooney, played by Mark Armstrong, brought a strong note of authority, resulting in the usual lack of result, despite the presence of a dozen or more bodies in the basement.

This review must include mention of the outstanding design of the set by Jim Duncan, who is quick to note that he had plenty of helpers to make it so. And there are others, no less essential to the production: stage manager Jessica Clement, producer Susan McLean, Nancy White (props), Tyra Schalles and Margaret Moreira (costumes), Seanna Sampson and Cassidy Abernathy (hair and makeup), Martina Duncan (front of house), and Nancy Duchaine and Lorne Rourke (lights and sound). They all prove that, once again, teamwork and talent are alive and well in Ashcroft.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs at the Ashcroft HUB at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 18 and at 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 19. Admission is by donation; doors open 30 minutes before.


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