by Michael Meigs
Joseph Kesselring's 1941 play Arsenic and Old Lace is a "golden oldie" kept alive for American culture by Frank Capra's 1944 film with Cary Grant and by community theatre productions such as the charming one currently at the playhouse in Wimberley.
Theatre critic Mortimer Brewster has been brought up his maiden aunts Abby and Martha, and one wonders how he escaped noticing the fact that they're nuttier than fruitcakes. Mortimer's brother Teddy stalks about the place, throughly convinced that he's President Teddy Roosevelt.
Just as romance is blossoming for the drama critic (who despises the theatre), he discovers that his sweet aunts have been cheerfully poisoning lonely old men and encouraging Teddy to bury them in the cellar as victims of yellow fever at the Panama Canal. Mortimer just might be able to resolve those problems if he could get all three members of his deranged family shuttled off to the Happydale Asylum, but another complication turns up: his long-lost second brother, the homicidal Jonathan, accompanied by a plastic surgeon of questionable ethics and not much talent.
The comedy of the piece springs from the juxtaposition of the thoroughly normal -- doting spinster aunts in their tidy frame house in Brooklyn -- with the deranged and the depraved, creating a bubbling pot that Derek Smootz as the reasonable, rational male lead must keep contained. It's most inconvenient to find unexpected corpses in the window seat and in the trunk of bad brother Jonathan's automobile. All that while trying to keep his increasingly bewildered and annoyed fiancée Elaine (Celeste Coburn) uninformed and out of the way.