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Arsenic and Old Lace: A Play to Die For

Just in time for spring, the theatre department is preparing to put on the comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Director of the Theatre Department John Reese is excited to direct the play, known for its unusual plotline, for his first time.

Set in a Victorian house, it features two elderly ladies who enjoy typical grandmotherly activities such as baking, taking soup to the ill, and hosting the minister for tea. Meaning well, they take to poisoning lonely old men with the “kindly” intention of freeing them from painful lives.

Their nephew, convinced that he is Teddy Roosevelt, willingly rids the ladies of the men’s bodies by burying them in the basement.

Their other nephew, shocked by his aunts’ deathly doings, attempts to stop them, at the same time trying to romance the minister’s daughter. Mr. Reese described the show as a “crazy little play” and a “darker, black comedy.” Bringing laughter in dreary war times, it was a hit in both America and Europe.

Since the play’s initial success on Broadway in 1941, audiences have been delighting in its morbid humor. “It’s a play that older people know,” Mr. Reese said. Nearly all the characters are older people as well. So how will this cast of teenagers visually create the illusion that they are several decades older, and from a different generation?

David Morales ’12, who will be making his Deerfield acting debut as the character Mr. Gibbs,  said that some actors are cutting their hair for the production in order to better suit the time period.

Jake Barnwell ’12, another newcomer, added, “There will be different costumes of the era, many haircuts and wigs, and stage makeup to make wrinkles.”

Along with hair and makeup, Mr. Reese said that the actors will further the illusion of adulthood by practicing “the way they walk and the way they get out and sit down from chairs.” They are even preparing to watch local elders to learn to mimic their natural movements.

According to Sarah Woolf ’12, Mr. Reese suggested that she and Anne Jamison ’09, who play the two eccentric lead ladies, watch older women at the store on weekday mornings. “The next day we have a long weekend, being the day stud that I am, I’m going to the grocery store to watch old ladies,” said Woolf.

Mr. Reese added that the actors will practice speaking by shaping their mouths more vertically, imitating the way in which many older people talk.

But those won’t be the only unusual styles of speech onstage. Among other characters, such as the doctor and policemen, the audience will be hearing New York, Irish, and German accents.

Some of the actors will be exploring their abilities even further; since the play originally had only three women’s roles, Mr. Reese gave female students the chance to appear onstage in the roles of men.

Of the 14 characters, eight are major, an atypically large percentage of the cast. The smaller roles are good too, making this a perfect production for all of the actors, including the four who have never before appeared in a Deerfield production––Morales, Barnwell, Lydia Hand ’09, and Dean of Students Toby Emerson.

Mr. Emerson’s excellent audition scored him the role of Lieutenant Rooney, a character that Mr. Reese said was better suited to be played by  an adult.

Arsenic and Old Lace is “light but it’s got that dark edge,” said Mr. Reese with a grin. “It’s a fun way to end the year.”

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