CENTERVILLE — Beware of elderly spinsters offering visitors a glass of their elderberry beverage.
Brewster sisters Martha and Abby make soup for the sick, collect toys for needy children, and offer tea and cakes for the visiting preacher and police officers. And in another act of charity, they serve homemade wine tainted with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide.”
A staple of dinner theaters and high school drama departments across the country, “Arsenic and Old Lace” will be produced by CenterPoint Legacy Theatre company at the Davis Center for the Performing Arts. The 1941 Broadway play has become best known through the film adaptation with incisive direction from Frank Capra, who was at his best as a master of mood and timing.
Cary Grant played Mortimer, a nephew who discovers the murders. He comically tells his aunts, who have their own rules about charity, “This is developing into a very bad habit! I don’t know if I can explain it to you. It’s not only against the law, it’s wrong!”
Other family members of the boarding house include a brother who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt and is always ready to charge up San Juan Hill, which doubles as the main staircase in the house. There’s also brother Jonathan who is a murderer on the run and ready to kill anyone who tells him he looks like Boris Karloff — but his recent plastic surgery makes him look just like the famed actor.
Explaining the family to the sweetheart he intends to marry, Mortimer says, “Insanity doesn’t just run in my family. It practically gallops.”
What many playgoers may not realize is author Joseph Kesselring based “Arsenic and Old Lace” on real-life events. The murderous old lady plot line was inspired by Amy Archer-Gilligan, a very clever serial killer whose victims, including her husband, may have numbered 100 but authorities found 48 deaths from her nursing home.
Archer-Gilligan, known as "Sister Amy," operated the Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm in Winsdor, Conn. Husband Michael Gilligan died just three months after their wedding, of what was called an “acute bilious attack,” a fancy word at that time for severe indigestion. After the exhumation of Gilligan and residents of the facility, all showing poisons in their system, she was sentenced to death in 1917. While she was convicted for only one murder, the trial evidence included Sister Amy's purchase of a large quantity of arsenic and a will from the night of Gilligan’s death that was shown to be a forgery handwritten by Archer-Gilligan.
If you go
What: “Arsenic and Old Lace”
Where: Davis Center for the Performing Arts
When: Jan. 14–Feb. 9, Mondays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with 2:30 p.m. matinees Saturday, Feb. 2 and 9
How much: $21-$17
Tickets: 801-298-1302 or centerpointtheatre.org