Stage Names: Portland Stage’s “Arsenic” poisons winter doldrums with infinite laughter

Mortimer Brewster (Ross Cowan) and his fiancé Elaine Harper (Leighton Bryan) in his aunt’s living room, in Portland Stage's production of "Arsenic and Old Lace," by Joseph Kesselring (photo by Aaron Flacke - please click to enlarge)

Mortimer Brewster (Ross Cowan) and his fiancé Elaine Harper (Leighton Bryan) in his aunt’s living room, in Portland Stage’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” by Joseph Kesselring (photo by Aaron Flacke – please click to enlarge)

PORTLAND — When I was in college in upstate NY, the period immediately following Christmas break was affectionately known on campus as “the gray season.” January and February were cold and depressing.

Fast forward to today. In northern New England, not much has changed during a time of year that still sees a peak of divorces, suicides, and a whole slew of other human drama.

But what has radically changed for me is that now I have Portland Stage just a stone’s throw away, and the folks there want to get me out of the house during the gray season, and laughing.

Its current production of Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace,” directed by the inimitable Paul Mullins, resoundingly fills both those needs.

While most know the storyline courtesy of Frank Capra’s 1944 classic movie starring Cary Grant, this refresher can help:

It is September, 1941. War rages in Europe but the U.S. is not yet fighting. We find ourselves in Brooklyn, at the home of two slightly mad spinster sisters, Abby (Maureen Butler) and Martha (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) Brewster, who, we find out quickly, have a terrible habit of bumping off their lodgers with tainted elderberry wine,

Under their boarding roof is also delusional nephew and Theodore Roosevelt wanna-be Teddy (James Patefield),  as well as Mortimer (Ross Cowan) a drama critic trying to woo Elaine Harper (Leighton Bryan) into marriage.

Enter long-lost prodigal son and Boris Karloff doppelgänger Jonathan (John Keabler) and his sidekick in crime Dr Einstein (John Shuman), who happen to have a corpse of their own in tow.

The basement becomes part cemetery, part locks for Teddy’s Panama Canal, and center of gravity for the ridiculousness which follows, aided and abetted by a slew of complementary characters played by the following highly talented actors: Hoskins/Spenalzo (Slashy), Police Officers (TJ Baldassare, Paul Birtwistle), Rev. harper/Mr. Gibbs/Mr. Rooney (Will Rhys), and Office O’Hara/Mr. Witherspoon (Daniel Noel).

Martha (Christine McMurdo-Wallis) and Abby (Maureen Butler) serve up some of their signature elderberry wine to an unsuspecting house guest (Will Rhys), in Portland Stage's production of "Arsenic and Old Lace," by Joseph Kesselring (photo by Aaron Flacke - please click to enlarge)

Martha (Christine McMurdo-Wallis) and Abby (Maureen Butler) serve up some of their signature elderberry wine to an unsuspecting house guest (Will Rhys), in Portland Stage’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” by Joseph Kesselring (photo by Aaron Flacke – please click to enlarge)

The delirium in this play would delight any audience member looking to lighten the mood for an evening in this time of dreary weather, and even darker political rancor.

Butler and McMurdo-Wallis should take extra bows for their Miss-Marple like aura of cognizant rope-a-doping. Their humorous spice was, in no small way, uplifting and joyous.

Cowan played Mortimer which just the right touch of boyish charm, and irony extraordinaire. This drama critic in particular was tickled by Cowan’s playing up the duality of that role. For her part, Bryan was a sleek and sensual Elaine, with considerable humor to boot.

Patefield showed excellent bluster in his Teddy Roosevelt fantasy and Shuman was as smarmy a weenie as the fake Dr. Einstein could muster. Finally, Keabler was a perfect double for Karloff, which was a great salute to the original Broadway production, where Karloff himself portrayed Jonathan.

The play ran about 2 hours and 10 minutes, which included two 10 minute intermissions.

Lights by Michael Giannitti–who has collaborated with director Mullins numerous times at Vermont’s Dorset Theatre Festival–were both incisive and surreal in their effect. Chris Fitze’s sound reverberated and added to the satire, while period costumes by Hugh Hason were very nicely stylized, and stage manager Shane Van Vliet adeptly orchestrated the large cast and constant movement to and fro.

Finally, Brittany Vasta’s set was a visual feast. I’ve seen “Arsenic” many times, and while there is always a staircase allowing Teddy his charge time and again up San Juan Hill, Ms. Vasta’s version added a long landing runway, which doubled Teddy’s forays, adding to the inane atmosphere pervading the Brewster household; bravo!

Abby Brewster (Maureen Butler), Martha (Christine McMurdo-Wallis), Mortimer Brewster (Ross Cowan), Mr. Witherspoon (Daniel Noel), and Elaine Harper (Leighton Bryan), in Portland Stage's production of "Arsenic and Old Lace," by Joseph Kesselring (photo by Aaron Flacke - please click to enlarge)

Abby Brewster (Maureen Butler), Martha (Christine McMurdo-Wallis), Jonathan Brewster (John Keabler), Mr. Witherspoon (Daniel Noel), and Dr. Einstein (John Shuman), in Portland Stage’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” by Joseph Kesselring (photo by Aaron Flacke – please click to enlarge)

Let’s be clear: one doesn’t go to see “Arsenic and Old Lace”  to acquire existential insights to universal morae.  One goes to laugh. And laugh. And then laugh some more. And when the laughing is done, if it was first class, the entire theatre jumps to its feet and roars.

Which is exactly what happened when I attended this gray season antidote at Portland Stage Company. And why you should go and down this potion while supply is still in stock.

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“Arsenic and Old Lace” runs through February 19 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit: http://www.portlandstage.org/

Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).

Stage Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.

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Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.