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Posted: June 24, 2014

“Arsenic and Old Lace” at Hackmatack proves classic comedy is still a riot

Written by: mainetoday freelancer

Courtesy photo Carol Davenport, left, and Tinka Finley as Martha and Abby, with Jay Rodger as Mortimer in “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Courtesy photo
Carol Davenport, left, and Tinka Finley as Martha and Abby, with Jay Rodger as Mortimer in “Arsenic and Old Lace.”


– by April Boyle

It had been a picture-perfect first day of summer in Berwick Saturday, and there was just a slight chill creeping in as the sun slowly set over the rolling farmland surrounding Hackmatack Playhouse. The evening air buzzed with excitement as patrons gathered outside the barn, eagerly awaiting the nightcap soon to be served inside – a comic cocktail of murder, mayhem and madness.

Hackmatack Playhouse likes to offer patrons variety by mixing a play in amongst its summer stock of musicals. This year, the playhouse kicked off its season with Joseph Kesselring’s classic comedy-thriller, “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

It’s set in 1941, at the Brooklyn, N.Y., home of two philanthropic sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster. Scenic designer Jerry Craven went all-out for the Hackmatack production, crafting a multi-level home, rich with wood and history. The faded photographs, vintage furniture and hidden passageways add a sense of mystique.

The play tells the madcap tale of the Brewster sisters and their colorful family. Mortimer is Abby and Martha’s nephew. He’s a theater critic engaged to a reverend’s daughter, Elaine Harper, who lives across the cemetery from the sisters. Mortimer’s mentally unstable brother Teddy, who still lives with his aunts, believes he is President Theodore Roosevelt.

A third brother, Jonathan, moved away years ago, and is spoken about in hushed whispers.

Mortimer is a successful writer, but detests the theater, believing that the plots in plays are contrived and unrealistic. This love-hate relationship with the theater is a farcical foreshadowing. As the body count rises, Mortimer’s perceived reality unravels fast, unleashing an evening of laughs.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” has had an extensive production history since it opened on Broadway in 1941, including Frank Capra’s 1944 film version starring Cary Grant as Mortimer. Jay Rodger steps into the role in Hackmatack’s rendition, directed by Michael Turner.

Rodger is loads of fun as the controlling, self-important critic, pushed to the edge of a nervous breakdown by his family’s homicidal hobbies. The more outrageous the plot gets, the funnier he is.

There are plenty of really entertaining cast members for Rodger to play off of as the comic frenzy builds.

It’s impossible not to smile as Robert Collinge, in the role of Teddy, charges up the stairs into “battle,” or heads to the basement to dig 6-foot-long “trenches” for the Panama Canal.

Joey Dalfonso and Michael Stailey are delightfully paired as the Boris Karloff-like Jonathan and his partner in crime, Dr. Einstein. Crystal Lisbon, as Elaine, serves as the straight man to Rodger’s manic Mortimer.

Hackmatack patrons will recognize many familiar faces in the 14-member cast. Among them are Tinka Finley and Carol Davenport as Abby and Martha. They are returning to the roles, having first performed them at Hackmatack in 1992. They are a riot as Mortimer’s well-intentioned, criminally misguided aunts.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” gleefully revels in murder-thriller plot conventions, satirically turning them inward for guaranteed laughs. It adds just enough plot twists to keep the audience members on their toes, making this a lighthearted concoction to die for.

“ARSENIC AND OLD LACE”

WHERE: Hackmatack Playhouse, 538 School St. (Route 9), Beaver Dam, Berwick
DATE REVIEWED: Saturday; continues through July 5
TICKETS: $25 adult, $23 ($20 on Thursdays) seniors, $15 students age 15 to 20 and $10 under age 15.
INFO: 698-1807; hackmatack.org

April Boyle is a free-lance writer from Casco. Contact her at: aprilhboyle@yahoo.com

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