Some families have more secrets than most.
The Brewster family of Brooklyn, New York, in the 1940s is one of them.
Their secrets get revealed in the Tomah Area Community Theatre’s production of the dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.
While centered around the Brewster family, much of the play’s focus is on the actions and secrets of the family’s two matriarchs, sisters Abby and Martha, director Rocky Shutter said.
“It’s based around the sisters and the different people that come into their lives,” he said. “They are two charitable women. There are a lot of people that visit them, and they take a special interest in lonely people, especially lonely men that don’t really have anybody — they provide for those people ... But the whole theme is that the sisters, in their own way, in whatever they’re doing, they think is charitable, a good deed, even though the audience might look at it in a different perspective.”
The sisters have some skeletons in their closets, and they come out to play across the stage with the assistance of their nephews Mortimer, Teddy and Jonathan.
Barb Sullivan play Abby, who she says is really a product of the time they grew up in.
“In their youth, that would have been the later 1890s, so they went from not having any sort of control over their lives, but after their father and brother died, all of a sudden they’re in control of this house, and they can do things their way, and so they do,” she said.
Barb Mundinger, who plays Martha, said the sisters are a bit dependent on each other.
“Abby is definitely the dominant of the two, but from time to time Martha will stand her ground as well,” she said. “We’re kind of like Siamese twins, we do so many thing together.”
The play is full of surprises, Shutter said, which is what he loves about it.
“I like plays where the audience is going to watch it and go, ‘What is going to happen next?’ That’s kind of the way this is,” he said. “There’s so many eccentricities that people do things that you’re just not prepared for. They say something and you’re like, ‘Did they just say that?’”
Shutter hopes the audience can accept the eccentric nature of the characters and just roll with it.
One character who is not prepared for the surprises and eccentricities of the family is Mortimer Brewster, one of Abby and Martha’s nephews. He gets a bit emotional, said Marcus Rowan, who plays Mortimer. The emotion is what he likes about playing the character.
“He’s very formal, very professional, but when he finds out a few things, he’s very excitable,” he said. “It’s fun flying between the mood swings that he has.”
Unlike Mortimer, the sister’s other nephew Jonathan is unemotional and dark. He’s actually despised and rejected by the family, said Justin Towne, who plays Jonathan.
“I left the family about 20 years ago, kind of entered a life of crime,” he said. “My character is the dark character, and I come back to what was the family home, but I don’t know the family is actually living there, ... and wreak havoc.”
Towne hopes the audience can see the humor inside the darkness.
“If you just really look at the story you’re like, ‘wow, there are murders and espionage and all this stuff,’” he said. “But the humor (is there) in the lines and in the characters and the obliviousness of the aunts and Teddy.”
The final nephew, Teddy, who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt, is partially why the aunts’ secrets have stayed hidden for so long.
The play is a bit off the beaten track, which is what makes it fun to watch, Shutter said.
“The one thing I like to do for Tomah is to have plays that make people think,” he said. “I want the audience on their toes every minute, listening, because who knows what’s going to happen next?”
It’s a very funny play, Sullivan said, which is why she loves it and why she hopes others enjoy it.
“I think the theme is so lost in the comedy,” she said. “The darkness of it, the scariness of Jonathan, the deaths, that kind of stuff is lost in all of the comedy of it. It has always been something that I found very funny. I really hope that people see that comedy doesn’t have to be so in your face as it is in some shows. I think, yes, we have some elements of slapstick in this show, but most of the jokes are real subtle. Any innuendo is subtle. So I’m hoping that people ienjoy the classic nature of the show, that they find that even though it’s a drama, it’s fun.”