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Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 18, 2018

‘Arsenic and Old Lace’:Broadway Players of FHS present classic killer comedy

By Vicki Tillis, Ledger lifestyles editor | Oct 26, 2017
VICKI TILLIS/Ledger photo Abby (Phoenix Haessler), left, and Martha (Harper Fiske) serve their special elderberry wine to Mr. Witherspoon (Mitchel Melvin),  superintendent of the Sunny Dale Sanitarium.

Although this is Halloween weekend, make time in your schedule to attend a performance of Broadway’s classic killer comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace” being presented by the Broadway Players of Fairfield High School.

Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the FHS Auditorium, with tickets available at the door before each show. The FHS Speech Team will be selling concessions between Acts 1 and II in the main lobby.

Arrive early so that you have a few minutes to read the program, especially the director’s notes by Betsie Wotherspoon. She explains that Joseph Kesselring first wrote “Arsenic and Old Lace,” then called “Bodies in Our Cellar,” as a heavy drama, but the producers wanted him to rewrite it as a dark, farcical comedy.

For the rewrite, Kesselring slipped many theatrical jokes into the script, but because the play was written more than 75 years ago, the references are probably lost on modern audiences, said Wotherspoon. In the program, she explains a few of the jokes, and those explanations are interesting and helpful. For example the bad, scary Jonathan says “(I killed him because) he said that I looked like Boris Karloff!” Boris Karloff, the star of many horror films, was the original Jonathan on Broadway, and it was reported Karloff brought down the house with this self-reference. (OK, maybe that wasn’t necessarily helpful for my understanding, but it was a really interesting fact to me!)

“Arsenic and Old Lace” is a perfect fit for the Broadway Players of FHS’s 2017-18 theme: “Every Family is a Little Bit … Different.”

The play is about the Brewster family, who are all a bit … odd … murderous … different.

The matriarchs of the family is sisters Abby and Martha Brewster, played by Phoenix Haessler and Harper Fiske, respectively. These two little gray-haired ladies befriend elderly men who are all alone in the world and humanely poison them with elderberry wine laced with “one teaspoon arsenic, half a teaspoon of strychnine and just a pinch of cyanide.” The thing is, they don’t think they are doing anything wrong.

The sisters have three nephews.

First you meet Teddy, played by Mason Malone. I like Teddy. He thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt. He sounds a trumpet, charges the blockhouse, and whenever the need arises, digs a new addition to the Panama Canal in his aunts’s cellar.

Next, there is Mortimer, played by Gunnar Mattson. Mortimer is a drama critic for a New York City newspaper. After he finds out what his sweet old aunts and Teddy have been up to, he decides he has to have them all committed to Happy Dale Sanitarium. He also comes to the realization that insanity runs in the Brewster family and maybe he really should not marry his sweetheart Elaine Harper, played by Mira Pappin.

The third nephew is Jonathan, played by River Norwood. Jonathan isn’t a very nice person, and he looks pretty scary, too. He and his partner in crime, Dr. Einstein (Dallas Carlson, with a German accent) show up at the Brewster home after a yearslong absence, with a scheme to take over the property.

But with the “help” of clueless police officers — Officer Klein (Andrew Alonso), Officer Brophy (Calista Rowe) and Officer O’Hara (David Wallingford) and Lt. Rooney (Hailey Simmons), everything works out just fine for the Brewsters.

The cast is rounded out by the Rev. Dr. Harper, Elaine’s stuffy father, played by James Trent; Mr. Gibbs, a prospective boarder who barely escapes with his life, played by Michael Hunt; and Mr. Witherspoon, the superintendent of Happy Dale, played by Mitchell Melvin.

FHS teacher and drama coach Betsie Wotherspoon is the director. Noel Wotherspoon is stage manager. School district technical director John Grunwald and FHS band teacher and director Jim Edgeton are technical directors.

Edgeton said “Arsenic and Old Lace” is a classic that has been presented by many theatrical groups. In fact, it’s been done at FHS within the last 20 to 25 years, he continued. This rendition by the Broadway Players’ presents a 1940s movie feel, which is appropriate since that’s when the play was written. Musical highlights from the Glenn Miller Orchestra, some of the most popular music of the time, help set the mood.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” also includes student crew members: Izzy Ferrell, Abyni Garner, Ella Phillips, Brenden Pool, JJ Funkhouser, Blair Grunwald, Katie McLain and Shaelyn Thompson.

Wotherspoon pointed out this was an ambitious, deep, dark play for the Broadway Players to take on this year; they were on a tighter schedule than usual due to late start of the school year. But everyone accepted the challenge and worked as a team to bring the show together.

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