The Golden Chain Theatre’s highly-anticipated production of the Joseph Kesselring classic Arsenic and Old Lace opens at 7 p.m. Friday night, and runs for three weekends.
The play, a clever combination of the farcical and the macabre, centers on two elderly sisters who are famous in their Brooklyn neighborhood for their numerous acts of charity. However, the spry sisters have a nasty little habit of poisoning lonely old men who come to their home seeking lodging.
In 1941, the play became an immediate success on Broadway, running for 1,444 performances. In 1944, Hollywood produced a film version staring Cary Grant that became a huge box office hit.
GCT newcomers play Brewster sisters
There are 13 cast members in the play, with the lead roles being portrayed by two experienced actresses who are newcomers to Golden Chain Theatre.
Karen Silver, 76, plays Abby Brewster and Janet J. Johnson, 66, plays Abby’s sister, Martha Brewster.
Silver and her husband moved to Mariposa from Southern California in 1979.
“My husband and I discovered Mariposa on a camping trip with our three children in the 70s and we impulsively bought a small cabin there as a vacation home,” Silver said. “Our life in Los Angeles was getting very hectic and pressured and the idea of living in a rural area became more and more appealing.”
Silver says she has always been passionate about live theater.
“As a dance major at UCLA I performed in many productions as a dancer, but I never considered acting,” Silver said. “Then came a hiatus of several decades to work and raise a family. About 12 years ago I took a part in The Vagina Monologues. I caught the ‘acting bug’ and that changed my life. I took some acting classes and had roles in a series of plays to benefit The Mountain Crisis Center in Mariposa.”
About that time, the Mariposa Community Theater started to develop and Silver appeared in several productions including The Rimers of Eldridge, and The Naomi Project directed by Richard Hoffman of Oakhurst.
“This part calls for an elderly woman,” Silver said. “And let’s face it, how many juicy roles are there for women my age? One amazing aspect of this play is that the characterizations are flexible, and the play still works. So I can make my own Abby, and I don’t have to think about the hundreds of other Abbys that have come before me, although I feel honored to be part of that group.”
Johnson grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. In 2013, Johnson and her husband purchased a home in Oakhurst for retirement after a search of many years.
“I am a mountain, streams, rocks and hills person who has loved the Sierras since childhood,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the GCT production marks a return to the stage after a lengthy absence.
“I studied in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater,” Johnson said, “Also UCLA, Los Angeles City College and American Theatre Arts in Hollywood. I have been in several classical productions, A View From the Bridge (Arthur Miller), The Three Sisters (Chekhov), The House of Bernarda Alba (Federico Garcia Lorca), and Sherlock Holmes.
Johnson said she has wanted to play Martha Brewster since she was a young lady.
“Martha and I share attributes and in some ways we differ,” Johnson said. “It’s an honor to be stepping into the shoes of Martha Brewster. No matter how many have gone before, each actor brings something special to the character. This is an ensemble play whose success depends on everyone working together and I love that. The folks at GCT are getting out the oil can for this old tin woman.”
“There is a reason why Arsenic and Old Lace is one of the most frequently performed American plays - it is hilarious,” Silver said. “The premise is bizarre and all of the characters are a bit coo-coo. You are guaranteed a good laugh.”
The production is directed by MaryHelen Mierkey, who also directed Agatha Christie’s murder mystery The Mousetrap in 2015. Her GCT acting credits include the quirky and eccentric medium Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and the calm, dead-pan Raynelle Turpin in Dearly Departed.
“Arsenic and Old Lace, which I call a dark comedy, is a classic show that has been actively produced in theaters for decades,” Mierkey said. “It has an underlying dark side, but the comedy aspects are exceptionally funny, and add enjoyment to the overall experience.”
Mierkey is happy to have Silver and Johnson play the Brewster sisters.
“Each of these women bring a unique set of experience and abilities to their respective roles,” Mierkey said. “The first time I saw them together I knew they were our Abby and Martha.”
The two sisters are assisted in their crimes by their mentally challenged nephew (Leonard Brown) who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and frequently blasts a bugle and yells “charge” as he bounds up the stairs. Matters get complicated when a second nephew, the likeable theater critic Mortimer Brewster (George Rich), discovers the murders and a third nephew (Bobby Woods) appears after having just escaped from a mental institution. Yes, this is one wacky family.
“George will have folks laughing out loud, and Leonard Brown, Makenzie Hagerman and JR Romero also add their own comedic flair to the show,” Mierkey said. “We all get caught up on our daily lives and news of the world. Set that all aside and come join us for an evening of light-hearted entertainment.”
“Laughter is so healing,” noted Johnson. “Not many of us get our recommended daily allowance, so come to the Brewster house for a couple of hours and enjoy the ride. Won’t you take a sip of our Elderberry wine? It’s delicious.”
Details: Arsenic and Old Lace (rated PG), Golden Chain Theatre, 42130 Highway 41, Oakhurst. Fridays and Saturdays 7 p.m. and Sundays 2 p.m., April 28 - May 14 - Tickets, $8 - $15, group rates available. (559) 683-7112, www.goldenchaintheatre.org.