Originally created 08/18/00

'Arsenic' remains lethally amusing



There's something about the Brewster family of 1941 Brooklyn, that venerable old clan of mad murderers who kill with only the best of intentions.

Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace at Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre features the delicious high jinks of the Brewster sisters, Abby (Avery Villines) and Martha (Sharon Brooks). These adorably twisted sisters share a home paid for by their father's ill-advised experiments with patent medicines.

Enter their nephew Mortimer (William Brooks), who gradually discovers the family secrets, buried in the basement!

That is why this classic script is such an exquisite pleasure - the constant peeling away to reveal yet another perversely funny moment.

When Mortimer discovers his aunts' penchant for poisoning lonely old men, he struggles to hide it from his saucy fiancee (Sally Metzel). Chaos ensues when his hit-man brother Jonathon (John Gary Pullen) arrives to hide out with Dr. Einstein (Ted Newton), his goofy German accomplice who has transformed him through plastic surgery into the image of Boris Karloff, with Frankenstein scar and all.

Toss in more than a few Keystone cops and punctuate it all with the trumpet blasts of tall Teddy Brewster (T.J. Sonnier), who believes he is President Roosevelt and has the Panama pith helmet to prove it.

Now, which one of this eccentric crew will end up in the Happy Dale sanitarium?

Director Richard Justice stages this madhouse mirth with absolute clarity and a rapid pace that keeps the audience breathless. There is wonderful stageplay with cadavers popping up in the windowseat, candlelight encounters and more slamming doors than Tara.

Above all, this show is about character: the family that slays together. We delight in watching Mr. Brooks deliver frantic double-takes at the antics of his aunts. Especially noteworthy is Ms. Villines' superbly textured performance as Aunt Abby. Observe the delicate bend of an aristocratic wrist, the determined thrust of a voice full of conviction that she is only doing the right thing for these gentlemen who are alone in the world.

Kudos to the period costumes by Ellen Parker, which include lovingly detailed Victorian finery for the elderly aunts and spiffy '40s snoods and wide lapels for the younger cast.

If you like your comedy surreal and situations cyanide slick, don't miss this play. Especially in a summer when TV island folks are munching on rat-atouille and Kathie Lee's long bye-bye is considered must-see, it's a treat to experience writing this superior and a production this well-crafted.

Oh, but should someone at Fort Gordon offer you elderberry wine with dinner, I'd pass.

On stage

What: Arsenic and Old Lace, presented by the Fort Gordon Dinner Theatre

When: 8 tonight and Saturday night and Aug. 24-26. Dinner starts at 7.

Where: Building 32100 on Third Avenue, Fort Gordon

Admission: $23, dinner included

Phone: 793-8552

John Elliott is an associate professor of art history at the University of South Carolina Aiken.