Director’s Diary: Arsenic and Old Lace

When Adelaide Director Barry Hill staged the black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace with the Tea Tree Players, his challenges included finding a large cast, fitting the set onto a small stage, interruptions from Covid and locating some curious props.

I fell in love with Arsenic and Old Lace when I watched the 1944 film starring Cary Grant, who, incidentally, loathed and detested his performance calling it ‘low comedy’.

Written by Joseph Kesselring in 1939, the play concerns Mortimer Brewster - who is living a happy life - he has a steady job at a prominent New York newspaper, he’s just become engaged, and he visits his sweet spinster aunts to announce the engagement.

Mortimer always knew that his family had a bit of a mad gene -- his brother believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt and his great-grandfather used to scalp Indians for pleasure -- but his world is turned upside down when he realizes that his dear aunts have been poisoning lonely old men for years.

When Mortimer’s maniacal brother, Jonathan, who strangely now resembles Boris Karloff, returns on the night that the aunts were planning to bury the newest victim, Mortimer must rally to help his aunts and protect his fiancé - all while trying to keep his own sanity.

Who could not love this black comedy? It has comedy, mystery and murder, all laced with a little elderberry wine to send the old men on their way to heavenly portals.

The Tea Tree Players has been one of the gems of Adelaide Community Theatre for over forty years. Their theatre seats 120, and they present mainly comedy and farce and well as having a thriving youth theatre program.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a three-act play which I do not believe works well with today’s audiences. So, my first task was to reconfigure the play to two acts, a laborious job as I needed to find an appropriate climax for the end of act one and make some time-of-day changes. After some judicious edits, I was satisfied the script was ready. The next challenge was casting.

Arsenic and Old Lace has a large cast of three females and eleven males, whilst the Tea Tree Players theatre has a small stage. Add to this the fact the men are a scarcity in amateur theatre.

I decided to combine the two policemen and have one actor play the two small roles of Mr Gibbs and Mr Witherspoon.

Whilst I could find the three female actors, the nine male actors were more problematic. Luckily after some ringing around and deciding to play the cop as a female (there were female police in the 1940s) it was cast. I had an abundance of younger actors, so I decided to play the three brothers as younger, which worked well.

Next the set. The Tea Tree Players mounts five adult productions, one or two junior productions and a pantomime each year, so there are sets coming and going all the time. I knew mine needed to feature a large staircase, a window seat to hide a body in and a cellar. When I directed this play previously, I had featured stairs to an upper landing, but this was not possible on a smallish community theatre stage.

The Tea Tree Players are lucky to have a genius set construction manager who can make anything work on a small stage, so we designed a reduced staircase going to a small landing.

The colour choice for the set was a no brainer. The play is about two dear old ladies who murder single men and bury them in their cellar so lavender wallpaper with mahogany trim suited the bill to a tee.

Anyone that has worked with me will tell you I am a very organised director; I set a rehearsal schedule and stick to it. Not this time! Covid hadn’t reared its ugly head until now, but then decided to wipe out a few of my actors each week at the beginning of rehearsals - consequently I must have played every role and attempted to block with actors standing in.

But the show must go on and we did, each rehearsal getting closer to the goal, but at times it felt like two steps forward and one back. Add to this the accompanying loss of time to practice ‘business’ and perfect lines with cast missing and you have a rehearsal period that seemed long at times, but in terms of realising a script, quite short.                

I usually like to run a show for three weeks to iron out any problems, to give the actors a sense of continuity and to ‘pace’ themselves for performance. Unfortunately, with Covid undermining the rehearsal process that wasn’t possible. In fact, the leading man still did not have the last scene memorised until the last week.         

But, miracle of miracles, it worked, and the production gradually developed pace but not precision. The absenteeism due to Covid meant that some of the sequences were not line perfect, but with experienced actors who can ad lib, we got through.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a fabulous old play, which was well received, but it did not come without added obstacles. My props lady was given the task of finding period surgical instruments, baking a Lady Baltimore cake and making a convincing dead body that could be passed through a window, hidden in a window seat and dragged downstairs into the cellar. Also, the actor playing Teddy Roosevelt had a face that no moustache would stick to, no matter what adhesive I used!

Beth, the props lady, managed the first two obstacles with ease. But the dead body was another story, so we decided to play this piece of the production for laughs and virtually folded the body to put it into the window seat. In dim dramatic lighting, the audience loved it. They never knew that the one corpse played two roles in quick succession thanks to some clever backstage handling. Needless to say, the actor playing Teddy Roosevelt went on without a moustache.

Was Arsenic and Old Lace worth the blood, sweat and tears we put into it? One only had to listen to the audience to have the answer. This was backed up by the results of the Lamerton Awards (named after one of the founders of Tea Tree Players). At each adult production, voting slips are given to the audience to rank the actors, set and play itself against other plays that year. We have finalists in three categories!

Next year I will be directing Tea Tree Players’ first melodrama, Only an Orphan Girl. I hope it will be as much fun and less stress than Arsenic!