‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ opens in Sonoma on Jan. 25

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Arsenic and Old Lace

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and Sundays at 2 p.m., Jan. 25 – Feb. 10.

Where: The Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center.

Tickets: Online at sonomaartslive.org or the SCC box office

In keeping with Sonoma Arts Live’s programming theme for the year – A Salute to the Classics – the theater company this month presents its production of the Joseph Kesselring play, “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

“This play is clever, well written and includes a bit of everything — murder and mayhem, romance, family dysfunction, food & wine and wit,” said director Michael Ross.

Kesselring’s farcical dark comedy was first performed on Broadway in 1941. An instant success, the show ran for three years and more than 1,400 performances. The 1944 screen adaptation was directed by Frank Capra and starred Cary Grant.

The farce is set in Brooklyn in a Victorian house occupied by the Brewster family, descendants of settlers who came over on the Mayflower. The elderly sisters, Martha and Abby, live there with nephew Teddy who believes he’s President Theodore Roosevelt. The sisters rent out rooms in the house to elderly men who have no family. They entice the men to take a sip of elderberry wine laced with poison. Convinced the men have passed away from malaria, Teddy buries them in the cellar, or what he thinks is the Panama Canal. When Mortimer, a drama critic and Teddy’s brother, discovers what his doddering aunts are up to, he tries to shift the blame to Teddy and have him committed. Chaos ensues.

Actress Karen Brocker, who plays Abby Brewster, says growing up with five sisters helped her develop her onstage relationship with the Martha character. “Of the two sisters, Abby tends to be more organized,” said Brocker.

Brocker came to acting at an early age. “When I was in second grade, I sat in the audience watching my mother perform in a community theater production of ‘One Touch of Venus.’ Intrigued by all that was happening on stage, I decided I wanted to do that.”

Brocker got her chance in high school, performing in a series of student productions. These days Brocker teaches fourth grade in American Canyon. “Arsenic and Old Lace” will be Brocker’s debut performance in Sonoma.

Karen Pinomaki plays Martha Brewster. Like Brocker, her fascination with the theater came early.

“I was 7 years old when the Easter Bunny left me a recording of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” Pinomaki said. “I loved the music and memorized all the songs. When my parents took me to see the show in San Francisco, I loudly sang along – much to their chagrin.” Pinomaki was 19 when she saw an “Arsenic and Old Lace” performance at San Francisco State University.

“I wanted to play one of the wacky, eccentric Brewster sisters,” Pinomaki said. “But I had to age into the part. So I was delighted when Sonoma Arts Live offered me the opportunity to play Martha.” Pinomaki previously worked with Michael Ross in “Gypsy,” and wowed audiences as fan club president in “Always, Patsy Cline.” “I enjoy working with Michael,” Pinomaki said. “He’s very creative and sets the vision. He’s an actor’s director.”

Sonoma actor Rick Love performs dual roles in the show. In the opening scene, he’s Dr. Reverend Harper and, later, he returns as law enforcement officer Lieutenant Rooney. “I enjoy the challenge of going from preacher to cop in the same play,” Love said.

Arsenic and Old Lace

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and Sundays at 2 p.m., Jan. 25 – Feb. 10.

Where: The Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center.

Tickets: Online at sonomaartslive.org or the SCC box office

Ross says the play isn’t merely a comedic farce, but has political undertones that would have been recognizable to 1930s Americans.

“‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ was written in the antiwar environment of the 1930s,” Ross said. “It can be argued that underlying the black humor is a theme which addresses an ongoing American conflict between the exercise of liberty, the freedom to do anything, i.e., the Brewster’s, and governmental control or encroachment. These issues are relevant today.”

The play marks Ross’s fifth time directing a Sonoma Arts Live production. “An important part of a director’s job is to get the casting right – and ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ presented a challenge,” said Ross. “There are 14 actors in the cast and only three are women. It’s much more difficult to find that many men for a single performance. But everything worked out fine. The cast we’ve assembled is superb.”

Sponsors of the show include Valerie Pistole, Jeff Walters, Buffy Miller and Clay Foundation West.

The Clay Foundation awards 20 or more grants each year to nonprofits, primarily in science education, theater, arts and social services for children. This year, the board was keen to support a production that, though a classic with an iconic title, may not have been seen by local audiences.

“Theater creates common ground,” said Miller. “Watching others perform on stage helps all of us learn how to work together to achieve important goals.”

Added Miller: “And ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ is such fun. Be prepared to smile, chuckle and laugh out loud.”

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