‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ a hilarious romp


There’s a myth going around that comedy must evolve if it wants to entertain today’s audiences. This is often used to excuse course — and frequently profane — language, a facile gimmick employed to disguise a deficit in the comic’s talent.

In fact, good comedy transcends the zeitgeist and provides skilled performers a timeless resource to provoke laughter from successive generations.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” is such a resource. The dark comedy, written in 1939 by Joseph Kesselring and subsequently staged on Broadway where it enjoyed a lengthy run, remains as funny today as it was on that opening night of Jan. 10, 1941.

Humorous lines, however, cannot by themselves ensure the success of a show like “Arsenic and Old Lace.” They must be delivered with expert comic timing aided by carefully choreographed blocking.

And this is where the play, as presented at Alhambra Theatre & Dining, excels.

The Jacksonville venue’s production features a strong cast of seasoned performers who expertly draw the audience into the madcap world of the characters whose eccentricities faithfully follow an interior, if misguided, logic. Razor sharp timing — as in a nearly accidental poisoning of two characters and their split-second salvation — produces a moment of terrible suspense followed by relieved laughter as disaster is humorously dodged.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” tells the story of the oft-maniacal Brewster family. The protagonist, Mortimer Brewster, learns that his spinster aunts have been poisoning lonely old men, murders that they consider a mercy. The bodies — a dozen in all — are buried in the basement, much to Mortimer’s horror.

When Mortimer’s homicidal brother Jonathan drops in with a victim of his own, the hero is caught between protecting his beloved aunts and turning his brother in to the police.

All of this is further complicated by Mortimer’s engagement to the girl next door, the daughter of a local minister.

A theatrical company is a team with each member contributing to the success of the whole. However, teams have standouts, as do casts. And it’s worth mentioning some of the most noteworthy performances.

Hillary Hickam and Patti Eyler give flawless performances as the aunts. They are absolutely convincing. Never does one get the idea that they’re acting. Their portrayal of sweet, well-meaning ladies provokes a genuine fear that the authorities will learn of their crimes.

As Mortimer, Shain Stroff is outstanding. As each absurdity of his plight is revealed, his reactions provoke absolute hilarity. Though the role demands a heightened level of theatrics, Stroff’s performance is always grounded in the character. Each panicked response is wholly relatable as the audience sympathizes with Mortimer and the impossible situations in which he finds himself.

Alec Hadden delivers a strong performance as the brother who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. The psychological malady in question may be a relic of a less-enlightened age, but Hadden’s portrayal allows the audience to suspend its disbelief and enjoy the character’s quirks.

Chad Conley’s menacing portrayal of Jonathan helps the audience become invested in Mortimer’s predicament. The antagonist’s villainy is essential to the central conflict, and Conley carries it off perfectly.

Rounding out the cast are Savannah Elam, Kevin Roberts, Pete Clapsis, Jonathan Van Dyke, Joe Anderson, Noah Blohowiak, Thad Walker, Travis Young and Mel Nash.

Tod Booth’s expert direction should not be overlooked. Much of what audiences are laughing at result from his instructions to the cast and decisions he made regarding how the stage is used.

Alhambra Theatre & Dining will present “Arsenic and Old Lace” through April 16. For information on showtimes, tickets, the menu and more, go to