New twists on 'Old Lace'

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By Doug Deuchler

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The hilarious 1940s dark comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace, opened last weekend in the Little Theater at Oak Park and River Forest High School. But you still have one more weekend to catch it. The production will be playing on Friday, Oct. 24 and Saturday, Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m., 201 N. Scoville Ave. 

 This is one of the American theater's most beloved comedies, but even if you've seen it before — and if you've never experienced a show put on by our local high school — this production might provide a fun evening out. It's an opportunity to support the kids' efforts but also to enjoy the consistently high-caliber work produced by OPRF's theater department.

 "The students are so responsive," said Jeffrey Kelly, veteran costume designer. "They are always enjoyable to work with as a rule, but with Arsenic and Old Lace, they are especially having fun and seem so curious. I've been trying to help them visualize the period."

 If you're a classic movie fan, you may fondly recall the 1944 Cary Grant film adaptation of this play, directed by Frank Capra. Set in 1940s Brooklyn, the plot centers on the two eccentric Brewster sisters who take in elderly male borders. Once this dotty pair learns these old gentlemen are without loved ones, with the best of intentions they put them out of their misery by poisoning them with homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic, thus speeding them to their final reward. They've buried 11 bodies in their cellar so far with the 12th waiting in the window seat in their parlor. That's when their nephew Mortimer, an exasperated theater critic, drops by on his wedding day and discovers the corpse of his aunts' latest victim.

 This unpredictable, madcap comedy is directed by Michelle Bayer. 

"I have a dream cast," she says. "The two students who play the young couple, Elaine and Mortimer, show real romantic chemistry. This is often pretty difficult for high school actors to convey. But Cole Sheridan and Emmaline Skillicorn are very good. 

"Audiences will enjoy this show. My husband had been begging me to do it, but I resisted. Then I finally realized what a truly good script it is.

 "We have some wonderful actors in this production," Bayer added, "such as Lily Blackman, who plays one of the old Brewster sisters. Lily was Golda in Fiddler On the Roof last season and was featured in Les Miz. A few others in the cast are not as experienced, but everyone is doing great work. For Erin McCamond-Watts, who plays the other Brewster sister, this is her first major role. I've also adjusted some of the traditional, old-school casting to fold in more actresses. We have some female police officers."

 The OPRF mounting of this fast-paced, frenzied old comedy in the Little Theater includes period-perfect costumes by Kelly and a 14-foot-high set by scenic designer Jacob Fisher. Patricia Cheney, who is in charge of make-up and hair, is in her 39th season, having worked in this capacity since 1976. Lighting is by Joe Hallissey.

 "Several of our actors have just done crew before," explained Bayer. "They have never ventured on stage in an acting capacity until now. Martin Farland, a senior who plays Teddy — the character with the delusion that he's Teddy Roosevelt — is our stage crew shop foreman."

 "The shop foreman is a big deal," Kelly said. "Kids apply for this position and it's a much-sought-after job. There's a competition to get it. So it's especially cool that Martin Farland can juggle both his broad comic stage role and his tech responsibilities."

 "Last time we did Arsenic and Old Lace was 1984," Cheney recalled. "That's a long time — 30 seasons ago. This production features a great group of kids. We're excited about so many aspects of this very funny show. We've got everything from pratfalls to a break-away table."

 Bayer noted, "We are also especially fortunate that one of the parents, Delia Ford, who is a professional fight choreographer, has been advising us and is donating her time and talent."

 Tickets for the last two performances of Arsenic and Old Lace for either Friday or Saturday are $8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors. 

 Oak Park and River Forest High School's theater department has long enjoyed a prominent reputation in the world of Illinois high school speech and drama. This winter 35 OPRF students will attend the Illinois Theatre Association's 40th Annual High School Theater Festival in January, including five students in the All-State production of Pippin.

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