It's been said that laughter is the best medicine, and in some cases, it may even be the best antidote. The Vagabond Players' Arsenic and Old Lace brings a 70-plus-year-old script involving the manifestations of insanity in an established Brooklyn family gracefully and hilariously into the 21st century.
As the first act opens upon a dialogue between Aunt Abby Brewster (a perfectly cheerfully unhinged Carol Evans) and her neighbor, The Rev. Harper (Larry Levinson, who also later plays the small role of prospective boarder Mr. Gibbs), the audience begins to get a sense of the how the Brewster sisters have managed to get away with feeding their unsavory little habit for as long as they have: Abby is perfectly prim and proper in her floor-length skirt, and her rosy cheeks seem to glow with grandmotherly good will as she attempts to push-perhaps a little too adamantly-her homemade jam on the reverend.
The environment in which this action unfolds is spot on; the one-room set is garnished in rich burgundy, dark wood and yards of cream lace and is plastered with busy, lace-patterned wallpaper and faded portraits in antique frames. It clearly belongs to one of those centuries-old, creaky (and creepy) homes with all sorts of bizarre secrets hidden away in corners. The details in the set design, credited to Sherrionne Brown who also directs this production, are impressive, right down to the antique telephone, the ornate hat stand and a lampshade with tassels.
The space also seems to contain the action ideally, concentrating it in a single, compact space-necessary for the slapstick elements of the production-without letting it get too carried away. The doors on either side of the stage allow for the constant in and out of the rather large cast of characters that is the hallmark of this campy, screwball comedy.
And as we meet the characters, we realize quite quickly how strange each one of them is. Aunt Abby's equally demure sister, Aunt Martha (portrayed solidly by Joan Crooks), turns out to be just as enthusiastic about serving unsuspecting old men elderberry wine laced with a teaspoon of arsenic, half a teaspoon of strychnine and a pinch of cyanide-all in the name of putting them out of their lonesomeness.
Their nephew Teddy (Torberg Tonnessen) is convinced he's actually Teddy Roosevelt and pops in and out of scenes to announce his plans for digging locks in Panama, convenient for the homicidal aunts who tell Teddy that their victims have been struck by yellow fever and need to be thrown into the "canal" in the cellar. Teddy also has a penchant for proclaiming "That's bully!" and squawking a few notes on a bugle. Tonnessen's timing is impeccable if his Roosevelt impression is somewhat lacking.
"It's a darn shame," one of the police officers who visit the home frequently notes, "a fine family like this, hatching a cuckoo." But it becomes clear that Teddy isn't the only odd duck when estranged brother Jonathan (a delightfully dastardly Roy Hammond) shows up with a corpse and with his sidekick, Dr. Einstein (Eric C. Stein, who brings brilliantly to life all the necessary qualities of a mad scientist, including the forced German accent), with the intention of transforming the house into their evil laboratory-so Einstein can give Jonathan yet another new face.
It appears the only sane family member is nephew Mortimer (Sean Mullin), who nevertheless is madly in love with the reverend's daughter, Elaine (Kate Shoemaker), and desperately tries to keep his family members from killing and his fiancée from learning the truth. Mullin is appropriately adorable if a little distractingly over the top with his franticness. He also is not the only actor who stumbles over a few lines during the second night's performance.
The production is three acts and three hours long with two intermissions, so come prepared with a healthy dose of stamina. The show could probably lose an hour and be equally effective and comedic, but perhaps that's a comment on the evolution of attention spans over the past 70 years. That's not nearly as long as the Vags have been offering up quality local theater, and this play is no exception: hilarity, like insanity, doesn't just run in Arsenic and Old Lace's family; it gallops.
Arsenic and Old Lace runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 5 at The Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway in Baltimore. Its next production, California Suite, opens Feb. 24. For more information, visit www.vagabondplayers.org.