They're just trying to help.
Elderly aunts Abby and Martha Brewster are doing their part to help end the suffering of old bachelors. Not by giving them painkillers, not by keeping them company, but rather by serving them fine elderberry wine ... with "just a pinch" of arsenic.
"Everybody thinks that they're the sweetest things in the world ... and they are sincerely trying to help elderly, lonely gentlemen by poisoning them and giving them a proper funeral," "Arsenic and Old Lace" director Biliana Stoytcheva-Horissian said. "They firmly believe that that's the right thing to do and they're so lovable."
Taylor Grenger as Martha, left, and Emily Early as Abby (without costumes)?rehearse a scene from Lycoming College's production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.'
"Loveable" ... and murderous. For the actresses playing these parts, Lycoming students Emily Early (Abby) and Taylor Graner (Martha), this can be a tough balance to strike.
"The ultimate challenge for them," Stoyt-cheva-Horissian said, "is to keep the fact that they're such lovely and wonderful ladies and at the same time, remember that they do such terrible things."
This struggle is a microcosm for the entire play, which is dark and funny simultaneously.
"If you try to tell the story, it sounds much darker than the show is," the director said. "I tried to tell my theater class just briefly a synopsis of the story and I said, 'It's a big, fun play about two ladies killing people,' and then I just realized that what I'm saying is not funny if you just hear it. It's really dark."
But theatergoers will have a sense of what they're in store for as soon as the play begins.
"The moment you enter, you know you're in the world of comedy," Stoytcheva-Horissian said.
The split nature of the characters and story makes sense when one takes into consideration that the rumored origins of the play were conflicted as well.
The play was written by American writer Joseph Kesselring in the '30s, originally titled "Bodies in Our Cellar," and was supposedly submitted to producers as a straight-up mystery-thriller.
According to American actress and writer Cornelia Otis Skinner (quoted in the Arts Club Theatre Company's Teacher Resource Guide), Kesselring sent the script to playwright Howard Lindsay and actress Dorothy Lindsay, with the hope that Dorothy would want to play one of the killer sisters. As Dorothy read the story, however, "she kept letting out little gasps and whoops of suppressed laughter." Howard read it, had a similar reaction, and with the help of playwright Russel Crouse, decided to "all but rewrite" the script as a comedy.
The play was first produced in 1941 and has been popular ever since - its fame being boosted by the 1944 film version starring Cary Grant.
"It has been a favorite for many generations," Stoytcheva-Horissian said. "It's farcical, it's fast-paced, it's energetic, it has extreme characters, improbable situations and it's just fun. It's pure entertainment."
When it came to the set, the director wanted normalcy to be the theme.
"We wanted to create a normal, old-style, Victorian house," Stoytcheva-Horissian said. "We wanted everything to be normal and so beautiful and comfortable and cozy, so it's just like you're in grandma's house."
The mock-house dominates the theater, extending beyond the limits of the stage and nearly up to the ceiling. It was built by Lycoming College visiting assistant professor of theater Jathan Innerarity, who is the scenic designer, lighting designer and technical director.
It'll make a nice setting for the nice, old ladies to do some "terrible things."
"Arsenic and Old Lace" will be performed at 8 p.m. April 10 to 13 in the Mary L. Welch Theatre at Lycoming College. For more information, visit www.lycoming.edu/the atre.