Review: Arsenic and Old Lace uncorks black comedy and social symbolism

Dr. Einstein (Bob Sullivan, left) and Jonathan (Alex Gallacher) prepare to torture Mortimer (Jim Cleough) in Mercury Players
Dr. Einstein (Bob Sullivan, left) and Jonathan (Alex Gallacher) prepare to torture Mortimer (Jim Cleough) in Mercury Players' black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.
— image credit: Peter W. Rusland

On the surface, Mercury Players' amusing Arsenic and Old Lace is vintage black comedy.

But drilling for social symbolism in director Maria Ridewood's version — debuted Thursday at the Mercury Theatre — also tapped timely messages about morals, acceptance, romance, and family love.

True, Arsenic ain't a heavy drama or a murder mystery.

It's a comical look at what happens when two spinster sisters, with too much money and time on their hands, come to play boarding-house God — deciding their mission of mercy is putting lonely, old guys to rest with poison-spiked elderberry wine.

(Bill Davey's depiction of cane-toting, tottering Mr. Gibbs was priceless as he tried to rent a room at the Brewster sisters' place.)

The sweet sisters have 11 bodies in their basement graveyard, plus one in the living-room window seat, attesting to their success.

It doesn't take a genius to see Abby (Debbie Champken) and Martha (Leslie Sanchez) Brewster are well-meaning but nuts, as they help others secretly "find peace."

Euthanasia is one thing, but these two are acting far before things are even terminal.

And the poisoning pair's actions raise questions about folks accepting evil deeds that have morphed into a casual hobby.

Serial killers think this way, though their grim methods aren't as tea-cosy.

Still, the effect's the same.

That idea hit home to nephew Mortimer (Jim Cleough), a newspaper theatre critic who's full of himself, and his pen power.

His condescension also surfaced in Mort's brusque treatment of well-grounded girlfriend, Elaine (Trish Dandy).

But Mort wasn't so smug after finding Mr. Hotchkiss' body in the window seat, and those 11 stiffs in the cellar.

Again, playwright Joseph Kesselring showed us how some folks need a real comeuppance.

Mort's bumbling amazement — shared by disbelieving cops — about his aunts' deadly little secret was nothing compared to the appearance of his long estranged brother, Jonathan (Alex Gallacher) who aims to use the family home as a cosmetic-surgery lab.

Jonathan enjoys killing people.

Gallacher's portrayal of a facially disfigured Frankenstein, with temper issues, was adequately chilling.

He and booze-soaked surgeon Einstein (Bob Sullivan) elbow into the Brewster home, like gangsters taking hostages.

Kesselring's respective disdain for physicians' greed, and inept police work, was crystal in Einstein and the play's four cops.

So was his feeling about dysfunctional families as we see, and hear, the wacky foibles of Brewster nephew Teddy (Bill Young), who believes he's president Roosevelt, complete with a bugle and his annoying command to "Charge!" — up the stairs.

But sinister Jonathan showed insanity's other face to the point we hope and even assume he'll be his twisted aunts' next casualty.

Despite Thursday's makeup malfunction, Gallacher simply stayed in character, illustrating how some folks are so wicked, we want them gone.

Kesselring strikes again, questioning legal versus deserved capital punishment.

Arsenic and Old Lace gave us a long (2 1/2-hour) entertaining look at live theatre — and ways to search for symbolism in unlikely places.

Just try not to be suspicious if you're offered some elderberry wine.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs Nov. 17 at 2 p.m., and Nov. 22 to 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Mercury Theatre, Brae Road, Duncan

Black-comedy play rating: 8 corks out of 10.

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