It seems like it might be a lot of fun to stay at the Brewster sisters’ rooming house, as long as you decline their offer of elderberry wine.

Audiences at the Portland Stage Company are getting the opportunity again to experience “Arsenic & Old Lace,” the perennial dark comedy about a household whose charms conceal some startling secrets.

It may be necessary to surrender to silliness to fully enjoy the show. But this impressive production of the Joseph Kesselring play definitely serves to lighten the gloom of mid-winter in Maine.

Elderly sisters Abby and Martha Brewster rent rooms to a succession of older bachelors whose loneliness they hope to ease – by poisoning them to death. Portland Stage veterans Maureen Butler and Cristine McMurdo-Wallis play the sisters who cheerfully dispatch their victims and, with the help of a totally batty brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, bury them, after appropriate religious services, in the basement of their home.

Butler and McMurdo-Wallis kept their characters delightfully oblivious to the mad lives they live. Each excelled at warmly delivering offbeat lines as they fussily served tea and sandwiches and tried to manage things in their own way.

The body count has reached a dozen when nephew Mortimer, a theater critic, discovers what’s going on and tries to devise a plan to stop the carnage while keeping everybody out of jail. Add to the mix Mortimer’s feisty fiancé, Elaine, and a few animate and inanimate victims, and the stage seems to be set. But then enters Mortimer’s long-lost and decidedly sinister brother, Jonathan, and his accomplice, Dr. Einstein. Things get increasingly wacky in the three-act, two-intermission play, particularly after the clueless police arrive.

Those who may remember the film of the play, starring Cary Grant, know that the role of Mortimer calls for some frenetic action as the young fellow heroically fails at being the calm, rational center in this off-kilter world. Ross Cowan is up to the challenge and, at the performance under review, kept things in high gear, though dialed back just a bit from Grant’s completely over-the-top performance. Cowan’s approach allowed the character to breathe just a little, through several double-takes and off-hand digs at the theater world he frequents, as he tries to balance his job, his fiancé and his highly eccentric relatives.

John Keabler made his dangerous Jonathan creepy and aggressive with a resonant voice meant to send chills wherever he directed it. His partner, Einstein, played by John Shuman, will remind fans of Peter Lorre in the original film. His crazy-like-a-fox mad scientist characterization was memorable as was Daniel Noel in dual roles as a policeman with playwriting ambitions and the sisters’ final victim.

Leighton Bryan brought verve to her dedicated and not easily dismissed love interest, and James Patefield, as Teddy, got to amusingly “charge” through a role that would be hard to exaggerate. In three roles, veteran Will Rhys added a sturdy presence to several scenes.

The elaborate interior set of hardwood and oriental rugs interior set is almost a character in itself, with variations in lighting adding to the sense of mystery and drama. The 1940s-era costumes, particularly the sisters’ dresses, add further to the appeal of this old-style entertainment.

Director Paul Mullins, cast and crew have provided an excellent opportunity to escape into a classic theatrical funhouse.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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