For most of the past couple of months of my life, much of my time and what little concentration I can muster has been taken up not with writing or speaking but rather with acting. Yup, acting.
I had a small role in the Fire Hall Theatre’s “Arsenic & Old Lace,” a 70-year-old dark comedy about two little old ladies who, as a sort of public service, poison lonely old men and then have them buried in their cellar. Loosely based on a true story, it’s sort represents the funny side of serial killing.
Although it’s something like 70 years old, it still has amazing affects on audiences. One audience member told a cast mate he almost peed himself watching our show. To which Chris Gust, who played Dr. Einstein (don’t ask) replied, “Almost isn’t good enough. We can do better.”
This was not the first time I’ve trod the Fire Hall Theatre boards. Last season, as we say in the theater, I was asked to play the emcee of the “Guys on Ice” halftime show.
“Guys on Ice” is musical comedy about ice fishing in northern Wisconsin. It was (thankfully) a nonsinging “role” which for me lent itself to a bit of ad-libbing. So, I got to make fun of people in the audience, including, during one particular matinee, former UND hockey television commentator Dan Hammer. Almost too easy. I also got to pick on my former employer, WDAZ, and quite a lot else locally.
But for “Arsenic & Old Lace,” I had actual lines to learn and a character to try to build. I played Mr.Witherspoon, the head of Happy Dale, the institution where much of the mostly insane Brewster family is headed.
Most of the cast was made up of more than a dozen veteran actors ― and me. For years, director Pat DeMars has been hinting I should give acting a try. It took “Arsenic & Old Lace” to get me to submit. I mean, audition.
My character was not a lead. My entrance came late in Act 3. I played the last elderly gentleman to be offered home-made elderberry wine by the Brewster sisters, laced with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide.”
Night after night, I had to stare down the very funny C. J. Leigh, cast as Teddy, a member of the Brewster family who happily thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt. I would attempt to keep a straight face while Teddy loaded me down with a canoe paddle, canteen, suitcase and headgear for what he thought was going to be his post-White House safari to Africa. I believe C. J. tried particularly hard to break me up on closing night. For the record, I never “broke.”
I’ve been a fan of “Arsenic & Old Lace” almost as long as I can remember. Not much more than a kid of 7, I first saw a televised version of the Broadway play which starred, among others, North Dakota native and Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt Roughrider Award winner Dorothy Stickney. (Google her.) I still remember “the 13 bodies buried in the cellar” coming to life, dusting themselves off and bowing to the audience, never having been seen until the play’s final curtain call. It’s an effect probably too expensive to stage these days anywhere but maybe Broadway should it ever be revived.
I’m pleased to be able to say our little show was a pretty big success with all 10 performances virtually sold out.
I don’t really do bucket lists, but if I did, being a small part of “Arsenic & Old Lace” would have to be on one of them.