Tea and biscuits are served upstairs. There are 12 bodies in the cellar. Pearl Harbor is 11 months away."
This, in the words of TheatreWorks artistic director Murray Ross, is the "kind of prophetic warning that cozy, safe havens can also be sources of danger." And while it describes the context in which Arsenic and Old Lace opened on Broadway in 1941, it also describes a message near the heart of Joseph Kesselring's play itself.
The setup: After an elderly man renting a room in the Brewster house dies of a heart attack, Abby and Martha Brewster decide to "help other old men find the same peace," says Sue Bachman, who plays Martha, the practical cook and chemist.
"We kind of feel we're helping society by putting lonely, scruffy, old men out of their misery," says Barbara Summerville, who plays her social sister, Abby.
This is how a play that's otherwise about a man (Mortimer Brewster) debating whether or not to marry his fiancée manages to avoid cliché. In addition to the two spinster aunts who poison the old men with laced elderberry wine, there's a brother (Teddy) who digs locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar, believing he is Teddy Roosevelt, and another brother (Jonathan) whose identity-changing plastic surgery has left him resembling famous horror movie actor Boris Karloff. (The real Karloff originally played the part, heightening the humor.)
"It's both very familiar and exceptionally weird — a rare but classic combination," says Ross.
"We learn behaviors from our families, so what seems odd to other people seems perfectly normal to us," Bachman says of the Brewsters, who find dead bodies ordinary, having grown up in a family of doctors. Mortimer's line to his fiancée — "Insanity runs in my family. In fact, it practically gallops!" — says it all.
"They think that what they're doing is perfectly fine, and they actually consider it charity work," Bachman says.
That's what Ross calls "the brilliant and enduring conceit of the play": the combination of real sweetness and real cyanide in the two old ladies. The comedy "brightens and lightens material that is normally not comic at all."
Beyond the dark humor, Arsenic has fun with classic American stereotypes, Ross says. The script references patriotic flag-waving and Christian piety, for example, "but it never really wants to be sharp and biting."
Also, he says, "It has this wonderful acceleration and rhythm — the classic screwball rhythm."
This aspect, capitalized on in the 1944 Frank Capra film starring Cary Grant, has also made the play a favorite of community theater stages over the decades. TheatreWorks hopes to make its production unique by giving the play "the professional treatment it richly deserves," according to a release.
For instance, set designer Michael Stansbery has reshaped the original stage into what's called a thrust, so that audience members will find themselves guests in the Brewsters' Victorian home, Ross says. Theatergoers even enter the theater through the Brewsters' front door.