By Joseph Szalinski
Desperate to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life? Dying to unwind with some sandwiches and elderberry wine? Well, Butler Little Theatre has you covered with the first production of their 82nd season, Arsenic and Old Lace, directed by Dennis Casey.
The classic black comedy follows a rather peculiar family and their zany exploits at their Brooklyn homestead. Abby (Nedra B. Casey) and Martha Brewster (Gail E. Suhr) typically use the property to shelter the occasional boarder and serve them some refreshments. Their nephew, Mortimer (Sam Thinnes), a recently engaged drama critic—ewww, who needs them—is made privy to what his aunts really do with their guests, which rattles him before he’s set to review a show.
While he’s away, Mortimer’s oldest brother, Boris Karl…I mean, Jonathan (Steve Kalina), pays a visit with his esteemed colleague, Dr. Einstein (Dennis Casey). The two of them then attempt to stash a stiff in the basement, unaware that Teddy (Thom Hilliard), the third Brewster brother, has been busy with a similar project, operating under the belief that he is Teddy Roosevelt, tasked with digging the Panama Canal and burying the Yellow Fever casualties.
Teddy is one of the most enjoyable parts of this entire play. While he is as deranged, if not more so, as his other family members, he is far more harmless; his instability is still a bit quirky. He is an absolute riot, delighting with grand entrances and exits, and mistaking people for historical figures, like William Howard Taft. Such a silly character is certainly a lot of fun for Hilliard to portray, but his portrayal is also mixed with sincerity; a demonstrable conviction in the truth of Teddy’s delusions, which is equally enjoyable to witness.
Mortimer is another character whose comedic chops endear him to the audience. Thinnes possesses a wonderful mix of charm and ignorance that carries him through the show. Despite me relating to the oddly specific element of Mortimer being a drama critic, I feel that he (and Thinnes’ performance) resonates with a wider audience on account of the fact that everyone feels as if they are part of a weird family. Although Mortimer is a fairly cerebral person whose humor is often showcased by wit and snark, the more physical scenes of his really stand out: like when Mortimer first opens the window seat or struggles to juggle a phone call and answering the door.
Duos are a big part of this production as well, the most notable being Abby and Martha Brewster. Separately, they’re solid characters that drive the narrative. Together, however, they add another dimension to the show, with their warmth and personability; Nedra Casey and Gail Suhr are great in their respective roles. Another notable duo is the menacing Jonathan Brewster and his accomplice, Dr. Einstein. Steve Kalina, scarred with makeup, delivers an intense yet hilarious performance as Mortimer’s other older brother. Dennis Casey, meanwhile, effortlessly balances directorial duties with a gut busting rendition of the constantly drunk “medical professional.”
Aside from incredible performances, the technical aspects of the production are also very well done, set design being the most impressive. The house feels as alive as any of the other characters. It feels lived in, like the fictional history of it is slowly allowing it to seep into reality.
Butler Little Theatre is an underappreciated venue in the Greater Pittsburgh Area. The space itself is cozy, storied, and boasts a decently sized stage and ample seating despite how small BLT appears from the outside. There are also tremendous shows chosen every season, ones that aren’t typically produced by other community theaters. All straight (non-musical) plays to boot, which is an incredible feat considering the theatre’s rich history; a history that it’s thankfully still building upon.
Areas just outside of Pittsburgh’s city limits have a bunch of tremendous art and culture to experience, and BLT is home to so much of it. This show is no exception.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” runs through September 22 though September 30 at the Butler Little Theater, One Howard Street, Butler, PA. For more information, click here.