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Abstract Meets Old Fashioned: The Upper School Production of Arsenic and Old Lace

What exactly is that black item that sits on a side table?

“On [a] practical level we…had to talk about how to use a rotary telephone and why men took their hats off when they came indoors,” said Catherine Clark, director of the Upper School Production of Arsenic and Old Lace, which will be presented in the 375 Pearl Street Meetinghouse at 7pm on April 26 and 27.

“I was surprised,” said Catherine. “In many ways, even though they didn’t ask for it by name, this is exactly the play the students wanted to do. It’s a really classic comedy, with characters that are a lot of fun to play,” she said of the production. It consists of 11 9th through 12th graders, two 10th grade stage managers, and a fabulous set by Production Manager Larson Rose.

Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 play about a pair of Brooklyn old-maid aunts who decide to get creative with some elderberry wine, would not seem to be the logical choice of 2019 adolescents, yet Catherine related that “…a number of students [said] that they were really interested in doing a style of theatre that can sometimes read as a little ‘old fashioned.’ ’’

Not surprisingly, producing a 1941 script in 2019 is not without its challenges.

“The play takes place in September of 1941”, said Catherine, “so we’ve had many conversations about what that moment of time was like.” Apart from the war in Europe and the impending bombing of Pearl Harbor – which would signal the entry of the U.S. into the war in December of that year – Arsenic and Old Lace explores the idea that “some things were rotten at the core of genteel society.”

There may be another reason the play resonates with BFS students in 2019: the Peace Church connection. Kesselring wrote this work while he was teaching at Bethel College, a Mennonite institution in North Newton, Kansas. The Mennonites share a philosophy with Quakers of social activism and pacifism. In 1941, the U.S. was conflicted about intervention in the European conflict and the Peace Churches were very much in this mix. These issues continue to resonate.

The intense camaraderie of an ensemble play, the physical action of ringing telephones, slamming doors, and climbing in and out of windows has been a joy for the students. “The entire cast is tremendously supportive of each other. They encourage each other, help each other on stage and off, and are –– all around –– really positive,” said Catherine.

“One of the great things about the Upper School play,” said Catherine, “is that we are able to explore a different genre or style of theatre every year…it is usually smaller [than the MS/US musical] and only features Upper Schoolers on stage (though we often have some middle school students work on crew). The musical is a huge undertaking, and features dozens of students from 7th-12th grade. Having the older, more mature students really let’s us go deep with whatever material we select. We have many students who love to perform but prefer not to sing or dance.”

Catherine, who designed her first play at BFS 21 years ago and is directing her tenth production with Arsenic and Old Lace, would normally have made a different choice — “my taste in theatre tends to run towards the abstract” – but the students “really wanted to do a comedy. I went through a lot of scripts before I realized that the play that really fit what they were looking for was one that was so obvious I had been overlooking it.” Clearly, BFS students were onto something: Arsenic and Old Lace is regularly revived all over the U.S., especially during the Halloween season.

“It’s been interesting,” said Catherine, “to look at this text that so many people are familiar with” [in part because of Frank Capra’s immensely popular 1944 film, starring Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane] “as a straightforward comedy with a generation of young people who are so aware of privilege; we can laugh at these characters, but also know that they represent some things that are really not right..”





Tickets for performances this Friday, April 26th and Saturday, April 27th at 7pm in the BFS Meetinghouse are free. Reserve them here.