Pretty Poison: SBCC opens season with ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’

From left, Leslie Ann Story, Christopher Lee Shortand Linda MacNeal in The Theatre Group at SBCC's production of "Arsenic and Old Lace"
From left, Leslie Ann Story, Christopher Lee Shortand Linda MacNeal in The Theatre
Group at SBCC’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace”

When writer Joseph Kesselring first imagined the story of “Arsenic and Old Lace” he saw it more as a Gothic tale, based on a notorious case of the time where the owner of a boarding house poisoned guests to get their pensions. But, rumor has it, Broadway producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse convinced Kesselring to make it a comedy and so he did. The play is now a classic, community theaters everywhere still putting on productions, including SBCC’s Theater Group, who premiere the comedy this coming Wednesday.

In the play, the Brewster family is largely composed of homicidal maniacs except for the youngest, drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Jay Carlander), who comes home to marry the girl he loves, fend off police, and wonder how he’s related to everybody else. The heads of the house are two spinster aunts who murder lonely old men with elderberry wine laced with arsenic, helped by Mortimer’s brother (Christopher Lee Short) who is under the delusion he is Theodore Roosevelt and helps dig the graves for their victims. There’s a murderous older brother, too (John Bridle) who is living with a botched plastic surgery job to hide from the police.

Jay Carlander, left, and Mr. Short
Jay Carlander, left, and Mr. Short

2265392“This play is still cutting edge in its own way because it continues to be a great story,” director Katie Laris says. “Every single character in the play, there are 14, has specific traits that are fun and relatable. But nobody is conventional.”

It’s also one of the first plays she remembers reading, one she read aloud to her grandmother.

“Arsenic” sets the tone for “crazy family” stories that came later, like the Addams Family and The Munsters, although it draws on the sort of Gothic traits that William Faulkner would explore.

Though Cary Grant played Mortimer in Frank Capra’s film version, Ms. Laris sees the role as completely different, and cast the lanky Jay Carlander, who grew up performing in high school under Rick Mokler, took time off to have a family, and has returned to the stage.

“He moves like Fred Astaire,” Ms. Laris says. “He’s so graceful, and so much of the physical comedy resides in his ability to react to the craziness around him. Not a lot of actors could pull it off.”

For the two homicidal sisters, Ms. Laris cast Linda MacNeal and Leslie Ann Story, both familiar faces around town, with Ms. MacNeal recently seen in SBCC’s “Solid Gold Cadillac.”

“And they had to be extremely likable and sweet, and execute a bunch of physical choices, and be absolutely insane!” Ms. Laris said.

Ed Romaine plays a police officer and amateur playwright, and he “completely inhabits the part,” while Ed Lee, another great physical comedy actor, plays the German doctor who helps out the murderous brother. Out of the Box’s Samantha Eve plays Mortimer’s bride-to-be, and Ms. Laris says she’s been glad to get her, as Ms. Eve is busy on her own productions and is working in L.A.

Christopher Lee Short is working with Ms. Laris for the first time, and is best known as the man who works in the Granada’s ticket office. Lesley Ann Story recommended him and Ms. Laris says “I can’t imagine anyone in the part” about her choice. “He looks the part, he studied everything about Teddy Roosevelt, it’s a nice surprise.”

Also, three of the older performers are also three former students of the SBCC Theater Program, proof that it’s open to all: Tim Whitcomb, Jerry Vassallo and Allan Stewart-Oaten.

“It’s so great to have a play like this that offers opportunities for actors of all levels,” she says. “Maybe it’s an overused word, but our theater represents our community. We don’t precast our shows, and our auditions are always open.”

“Arsenic and Old Lace” opens the 2014-2015 season at SBCCTG, with many more to come, including “The Heiress,” “Light Up the Sky” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”

Arsenic and Old Lace
When: 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. (July 13 performance is live captioned) Performances through July 26
Where: SBCC’s Garvin Theatre
Cost: $24-$15
Information: 965-5935,

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