The Salem High School Drama Department will present the classic comedy, "Arsenic and Old Lace" at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
Written by Joseph Kesselring in 1939, "Arsenic and Old Lace" has become best known through the film adaptation starring Cary Grant and directed by Frank Capra, who, just prior, brought movie-goers the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life."
The play originally opened on Jan. 10, 1941, and played for 1,444 performances over three years, an extraordinary run for a non-musical. Boris Karloff, who not only played Jonathan in the stage play also put up some of the money for the stage production. When several members of the cast took an eight- week leave from the play in order to film the movie version, Karloff was unable to join them, replaced by film legend Raymond Massey.
Of the 12 plays written by Kesselring, "Arsenic and Old Lace" was by far the most successful. According to the opening night review in the New York Times the play was "so funny that none of us will ever forget it." And we haven't. "Arsenic and Old Lace" is one of the most popular comedies ever written, and one of the most produced plays of all time, having been seen by nearly every high school and community theater across the nation. This time, it's SHS' turn.
The drama department, now led by high school music teacher Attila Samu wanted the perfect show to launch his new endeavor and decided "Arsenic and Old Lace" would be the perfect vehicle. Samu will produce the play while veteran director John Miller will lead the cast and stage the show. Miller has directed the musical alongside Samu for the past five years.
"We've been experiencing such great success with our spring musicals that I thought I would pick up the fall play this year," said Samu. Miller and Samu, a longtime partnership in the theater, will surely not disappoint. "Audiences will laugh and students will learn," said Samu. "That's the name of the game. The kids are having a blast with the show because there is so much crazy comedy involved. We are adding a lot of special sound and lighting effects to enhance the comedy, taking it to the extreme."
The play is a farcical comedy of outrageous nature, complete with mistaken identities, dead bodies that disappear and reappear and characters "to die for." Film actors such as Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Cary Grant and Lorraine Day all took part in making the play a classic.
The plot revolves around Mortimer Brewster, (played by SHS senior Zachary Devine) a drama critic who must deal with his crazy, homicidal family and the local police in Brooklyn, N.Y. Feeling a little bit crazy himself, Mortimer also must debate whether to go through with his recent promise to marry Elaine (played by Bethany Kholos), the woman he loves and the neighborhood "minister's daughter," as the plot unfolds.
The focal characters in all the madness are sweet, old Abby Brewster (played by Emily Paxson) and equally sweet sister Martha Brewster (played by SHS senior Stephanie Baker) - Mortimer's two spinster aunts who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with their home-made elderberry wine. "We lace it with arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide," explains Aunt Martha, in the most delicate of deliveries. The little old ladies explain to their nephew how and why they manage to "take out" lonely old men who stop by for tea. "It's one of our charities," explains Aunt Abby. Mortimer's eyes are bugging out as he listens with comedic trepidation.
The next crazy loon is Mortimer's brother Teddy, (played by Tyler Roth) who wholeheartedly believes he is the current president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy digs locks for the "Panama Canal" in the cellar of the Brewster home which subsequently serves as graves for the aunts' victims. Twelve, to be exact. ("Or is it 13?" ponders Martha.)
To complicate matters further, Mortimer's other brother Jonathan (played by SHS senior Jansen Paumier) arrives with plans of his own. Jonathan is a murderous rogue who travels with his whiny, alcoholic doctor companion, Einstein. ("Herman, not Albert," played by Rebecca Linam).
Dr. Einstein has this habit of changing Jonathan's face via plastic surgery with not-so-successful results. Most recently he causes Jonathan to be identified with movie horror-man Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. The resemblance is frequently noted, much to Jonathan's annoyance. Jonathan, upon finding out his aunts' secret, decides to capitalize on the situation. Jonathan and Einstein have been hauling their own dead victim around in the rumble seat of their car! The poor, dead Mr. Spenalzo will soon find himself in the Brewster house and on his way to "Panama," to which Abby and Martha vehemently object. "Our victims were all nice gentlemen. Mr. Spenalzo is a stranger," says Abby. "We will not have a foreigner buried in this house, "she exclaims!
Jonathan then hatches his next evil plan - to kill Mortimer and overtake the Brewster home as his laboratory for evil deeds! Meanwhile, the innocent Elaine cannot figure out why her loving fiance Mortimer is acting so crazy. She pops in and gets thrown out a few times before Jonathan manages to capture her! Mortimer makes increasing frantic attempts to stay on top of the situation, including multiple efforts to alert the bumbling local cops (who can't put their doughnuts down). The result is a mad, merry mix-up of insanely outrageous proportions! "Insanity runs in my family," Mortimer exclaims, shooting a look towards his two little old aunts trotting around the living room picking up the mess everyone seems to be making. "It practically gallops," he says in afterthought.
Frank Capra actually filmed the movie in 1941, but it was not released until 1944, after the original stage version had finished its run on Broadway. The lead role of Mortimer Brewster was originally intended for Bob Hope, but he couldn't be released from his contract with Paramount. Capra also approached Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan before going with Cary Grant.
The contemporary critical reviews were uniformly positive. The New York Times critic summed up the majority view: "As a whole Arsenic and Old Lace... is good macabre fun." Variety declared of the film version, "Capra's production...captures the color and spirit of the play." SHS will surely top it!
The very capable SHS cast also includes senior Justin Harsh as Officer O'Hara, the Irish New York cop who is more interested in writing a play of his own that looking for injustice. John Halstead and Sarai Bodine play Officers Brophy and Klein respectively, while Kailey Workman plays the boisterous Lieutenant Rooney. Rounding out the cast is Nick Rusyn in three different character roles including Reverend Harper, Mr. Witherspoon, the top dog at Happy Dale Sanitarium; and potential victim, lonely old Mr. Gibbs.
"Arsenic and Old Lace" is scheduled for two performances at Salem High School, 1200 E. Sixth St., Salem, Ohio 44460. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for students and seniors. All proceeds benefit the Salem High School Drama Department. Tickets may be purchased at the door. Seating is general admission.