Family drama turns macabre

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Theater > Catch ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Los Alamos Little Theater

By Jennifer Garcia

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as the saying goes. While this statement is true for many aspects of family life, Los Alamos Little Theatre’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” proves that it also sometimes applies to criminal activities.
Written by Joseph Kesselring, directed by T.J. Severinghaus and produced by Gracie Cainelli and Jim Sicilian, “Arsenic and Old Lace” kicks off LALT’s 70th anniversary.
The play is set in 1940s Brooklyn and focuses on the lives of the Brewster sisters, played by Jody Shepard (Abby) and Jeanne Adkins (Martha). The sisters live in their father’s house with their nephews Teddy Brewster (Larry Gibbons) and Mortimer Brewster (Don Monteith) and lead what would appear to be a normal life. They run a boarding house of sorts, as they rent out rooms in their home to gentlemen looking for a place to stay.
It’s not until Dr. Harper (Stuart Schaller) pays the duo a visit, that things begin to take a sinister turn. It seems that Teddy thinks he’s President Theodore Roosevelt. Not only does he think he’s the president, but he lives every second of his life as Roosevelt and even dresses like him. One might say he’s a bit out of touch with reality. As a result, Harper suggests the duo have Teddy sign paperwork that would have him committed to a sanitarium in the event of their deaths, so he’d have someone to take care of him. Meanwhile, his seemingly sweet aunts use his mental illness to their advantage, by using him to help them cover up their dark activities.
Mortimer, on the other hand, is a journalist and theatre critic. He’s dating — and becomes engaged to — Harper’s daughter, Elaine (Crystal Miller). It’s Mortimer that discovers what his aunts have been up to — and the secret behind their elderberry wine — but instead of turning them in to the authorities, he decides to try and help them. All seems to be going well until Mortimer’s and Teddy’s other brother, Jonathan (Pete Sandford), shows up at the Brewster home after being gone for an extended period of time.
Jonathan has a criminal history of his own and has somehow managed to befriend — or perhaps strong arm— plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Brad Lounsbury), into helping him remain on the lam by performing the occasional facial reconstruction surgery. His latest scheme to help Jonathan hide is to make him look like Boris Karloff, much to the horror of those who meet him.
Jonathan’s character is anything, but likeable and Sandford does a tremendous job at making him a heel. From his facial expressions to his threatening tone, the audience gets the feeling that Jonathan is not a nice guy.
Without giving away too much more, suffice it to say the storyline will keep the audience at the edge of their seats, as Elaine is put in peril, Jonathan makes a threat, the aunts’ secret is discovered and Jonathan and Einstein decide to make the Brewster home their permanent residence — much to the chagrin of the sisters and Mortimer.
The production was a wonderful way to start off the season. The actors were full of life and played their parts well (especially Shepard and Adkins). One couldn’t help but chuckle at some of their lines and shocking situations, yet feel compassion for these two sweet little old ladies who could be just about anyone’s aunts or grandmothers. They also seem to be a bit out of touch with reality, because they think of what they do as a service, rather than a crime.
Monteith as Mortimer also did an outstanding job. He was incredulous in spots where his role called for it, angry in others, but always a likeable character, despite his arrogance.
Gibbons definitely breathed life into Teddy. His antics were humorous and the fact that he was oblivious to his aunts’ shenanigans, made his part in their dirty work easy to overlook.
Though there are three acts in this play (it runs about two hours), you’d never guess it because time seems to go by quickly. There is not a boring moment in the production and because the characters are so interesting, the audience is bound to remain engaged.
The set designers also did a remarkable job, turning the LALT stage into the living room of a Victorian-style home. The walls were painted to look like wallpaper, portraits adorned the walls and a window seat, used frequently in the play, held up well and looked convincing. The furniture was exactly what one would expect from this time period and there was a staircase leading upstairs, adding to the façade that there were rooms on the upper level. Although, it was a bit unnerving to see that one of the portraits on the wall appeared to have no eyes. That was the first clue that this play might be a bit dark.
Macabre or not, if the rest of the season is anything like this production, it is definitely something to look forward to.
There’s still time to catch “Arsenic and Old Lace” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at LALT, 1670 Nectar St. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors and are available at CB Fox or at the door.