Salt Spring Community Theatre offers a classic and hilariously dark comedy for its spring show this year, presenting Arsenic and Old Lace over two weekends at Mahon Hall.
Opening on Friday, April 5, the Joseph Kesselring script is directed by Suzanne Rouger and stars Ann Stewart, Mary Lowery and Daniel Squizzato, with Metta Rose and Scott Merrick in supporting roles.
Many will be familiar with the hit movie adaptation featuring Cary Grant. For those who need some refreshing, the action centres around New York drama critic and author Mortimer Brewster, who suddenly decides to get married and arrives in Brooklyn to inform his two aged aunts. While there he discovers their well-intentioned “charity” scheme of murdering lonely old men to give them peace, and has to contend with his two equally insane brothers — one a deluded soul charged with burying the victims in the basement, and the other a psychopath who travels with his own plastic surgeon so he can regularly change his identity using other men’s faces.
Rouger said she chose the play partly because she wanted to work with the older demographic that makes up such a big part of the island community.
“And I love the classics. Some of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s plays are so clever with their comedy. They were written before you were allowed to go for the cheap laughs, like fart jokes,” Rouger said.
This large cast may pose logistical challenges for the production, but it also helps fulfill the community theatre mandate by offering a wide variety of roles with different expectations and stage time. There’s room for theatre veterans and avid enthusiasts as well as those who are perhaps dipping their toes into those waters for the first time.
Rouger said she saw many brilliant women in the auditions for the aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster. Stewart and Lowery were special standouts, though, both for their sharp comedic impulses and for the way they play off each other.
“It came down to chemistry between the two sisters. They just had the chemistry from the beginning,” Rouger said.
Squizzato only ventured into community theatre a few years ago but quickly became an accomplished and committed actor, appearing in serious and silly roles with equal success. He was a natural fit for Mortimer. Rouger has also been impressed by Rose, who appears as Elaine. She’s smart, charming and one to watch, the director said.
Community theatre stalwart Scott Merrick gets to pull out his comedy arsenal — including a German accent — for the role of corrupted plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein. To give an idea of the possibilities, Peter Lorre played the part in the film version.
Arsenic and Old Lace is set in 1941, but stage instructions note the house has not changed since the Brewsters’ Edwardian grandfather established it. To help get things just right, retired film set designer Jim Erickson is mentoring community theatre set designer Suzanna Devitt. Erickson is also contributing items from his personal collection such as wallpaper and window dressing from the actual time period.