Involuntary euthanasia was never examined with as much warmth as when Joseph Kesselring took it on in Arsenic and Old Lace. The World War II-era black parlor comedy gave the “spinster aunt” archetype teeth (intimating that harmless old ladies are anything but) and added layers to the likewise matronly piece of advice to “kill with kindness.”
On an expertly adapted Camarillo Community Theater stage, locals Trish Beasley and Juanita Seavey take their turns as the two Miss Brewsters, Brooklyn ladies of good standing who keep their family home in order and provide room and board to old gentleman who hear of them not by advertisement, but by word of mouth. Abby and Martha Brewster offer a permanent home to their nephew Teddy, who labors under the well-researched delusion that he is Theodore Roosevelt (Teddy has a habit of ascending the stairs by re-enacting the charge up San Juan Hill). The ladies Brewster are also occasional hostesses to Teddy’s brother Mortimer, a drama critic with a deep loathing for the theater, and his would-be fiancée, Elaine.
The Brewster sisters’ renowned hospitality is called into question when Mortimer discovers the body of an elderly border in their window seat, and Mortimer’s aunts nonchalantly tell him that they poison the wine of old men they’ve determined to be “lonely.” They are so well-intentioned, Mortimer (and the audience) is given a chance to revisit the concept of “mercy killings.”
Although being of a certain age and relatively alone seems to them enough of a prerequisite for death, the Brewster ladies (of advanced age themselves) embody a spirited seniority that puts them at the center of the action. Their prodigal nephew, the psychotic Jonathan, calls on them with his creepy (but far more endearing) sidekick, Dr. Einstein, in tow. Mortimer’s attempts to oust his menacing brother hit a snag when Jonathan realizes why Teddy is downstairs single-handedly digging “the Panama Canal” in the basement (and burying what Teddy assumes are yellow fever victims).
While such gruesome details could easily compromise a play intended as satire, the charm of the Brewster women, and the measured, witty response of Mortimer, makes for a delightful romp through that gray area of morality.
The success of any Arsenic production is the pure likability of the elder murderous broads, and Beasley and Seavey are women worth spending a few hours with. They play off each other seamlessly, taking few lines of dialogue to convincingly forge a fond mutual spinsterhood of raising nephews and offering tea, sympathy and eternal comfort. Their timing is quick and light, and the two enjoy an affable back-and-forth that puts the audience at ease and makes the two — even with so much blood on their hands — almost beyond reproach. Almost.
Theirs is not an easy task. Through two evenings of ongoing action funneled through their boarding house living room, the two Miss Brewsters guide a stream of police officers, guests on the lam, welcome visitors and poor old men, and Beasley and Seavey bring energy disguised as frenetic gentility. David Baneulos as Dr. Einstein perfects a lovable Peter Lorre emulation with ingenious comedic timing, and David Flores, as a clueless but mouthy Officer O’Hara — part Brooklyn beat officer, part Keystone cop — regales the audience with tales of his doomed side career as a playwright while remaining oblivious to the gentile underground culture afoot all around him.
Arsenic and Old Lace continues through May 13. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $8-17. Camarillo Community Theatre, 330 Skyway Drive (Camarillo Airport Facility), Camarillo. 388-5716.