Farcical Comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace” takes the Black Box Theater Stage

  • Black Box Theater brings farcical comedy of murdering aunts to life with two-story stage set.
  • The cast and crew hope the play’s comedy will allow students to laugh and relax during the end of the semester.


Spinsters Abby and Martha Brewster are kind, charitable and donate toys to the local police department to distribute to children at Christmas.


They have also killed 12 men.


In Liberty University’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the Brewster sisters demonstrate their perchance for using elderberry wine laced with arsenic and other poisons to kill lonely men.


Written by Joseph Kesselring, “Arsenic and Old Lace” was a stage play made into a 1944 movie starring Cary Grant, and tells the story of Abby and Martha’s nephew — the drama critic Mortimer Brewster — who learns that his family is crazier than he had previously thought while anticipating marrying girl-next-door Elaine Harper.



“Arsenic and Old Lace” opened Dec. 1, and runs through Dec. 17 at the Black Box Theater.


“My favorite part about ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ is just how funny it is,” Rachel Jones, who plays Aunt Abby, said.  “It’s just absolutely hilarious, and it is just so much fun getting to come up here and be as energetic as possible and make everyone on stage energetic.  I feel it’s just a lot of fun for the audience to see how involved the characters are at being energetic and just really truly trying to bring that energy out into the audience, and have them experience it as well.”


Filled with irony, humor and unexpected visits from family guests dropping by, “Arsenic and Old Lace” is the second performance in Liberty’s new Black Box Theater, and has provided unique challenges for the cast and crew.


“This was a new challenge – a two-story Victorian home interior, and also one that these older ladies love candlelight so we have open flame and things like that, and with that comes other things,” director Chris Nelson said.  “Our students have enjoyed working on it, and it’s challenging us in our new environment in that new theater because we have to light it differently and the audience sits in it differently than they did in ‘Wait Until Dark,’ so it’s just a different experience.”


The two-story set includes ghostly portraits, stained-glass half-moon lamps, a balcony and lace curtains, and is the product of hard work from the design shop.


“(It was) a lot of work, because this set is huge, so it was a lot of long days and nights for the designers, the crew and staff here,” April McWilliams, the technical director for lights and sound, said.


Bringing the set and story to life, many of the actors are freshman and sophomores, which Nelson said allows the students to mature and grow.


“We love to see our new students, those that are majoring in our department (and) see them get engaged in our department early,” Nelson said.  “We want them to make sure that they understand that here at Liberty, we do as many shows as we do because we want to get our students up and learning and growing.  In theater, the only way you can really truly continue that growing outside of the classroom is in that laboratory space and that’s how they continue to find what works and doesn’t work and how they can be stronger.”


The actors themselves enjoy the growing process as well.


“It was really fun being able to push myself in a role that’s basically the opposite of who I am, which is what acting is all about,” Travlyn Pantana, who plays Mortimer’s estranged brother Jonathan, said.


Jones said she also likes learning from her role.


“I love Abby Brewster,” Jones said.  “She’s such a selfless person, and it’s just such a fun role because they don’t realize what they’re doing is wrong.  Abby personally tries to do everything she can for other people, and . . . she’s so lively, she just loves people, loves being happy and making other people happy.”


To both help the students perfect their comedic timing and thank the people who work facilities at Green Hall, Nelson invited facility workers to view the play’s final dress rehearsal.


“Especially when you’re doing a comedy, sometimes students don’t have an idea of where the laughs will be or how they have to pause, how they have to make sure they don’t keep talking while others are laughing because then they’ll miss the story, so there’s an art form of even just performing in a comedy that I was after,” Nelson said.
“So it was kind of a two-fold – it was useful to our students, but it was a way to say thank you to the facilities (because they really help out the university and they serve us here in the department).”


In the midst of busy finals schedules and Christmas preparations, Nelson and the cast hope that students and other audience members can have some laughs and take a break from the busyness of the end of the semester.


“(I hope they can have) just a good time –  hopefully just a laugh, a chuckle, a few chuckles,” Nelson said.  “It’s (a play) that the situation is fun, the characters are fun and it’s a fun, madcap little script.  It’s an entertaining piece.”


“I want the (audience) to have a good time, just to kind of let loose, to use something as crazy as psycho murders to learn a lesson, but to let loose and have fun and realize that comedy and joy can be found in anything,” Pantana said.


Tickets for “Arsenic and Old Lace” — which runs through Dec. 17 — can be purchased online, through the Box Office or by calling 434-582-7328.

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