Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Arsenic and Old Lace
Sonoma Arts Live
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's review of Underneath the Lintel and Patrick's reviews of Creditors, Metamorphoses, Seascape

Karen Brocker, Tim Setzer, and Karen Pinomaki
Photo by Miller Oberlin Photography
If you've never seen a live performance of Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace, the venerable classic in the Western theatre canon, hustle a pair of tickets to the production at Sonoma Arts Live before it closes. Even if you've seen it many times, you will find this cast and staging a solid tribute to the old chestnut that delivers a satisfying entertainment.

Spinster sisters Abby and Martha Brewster (Karen Brocker and Karen Pinomaki) have a new charitable hobby—helping lonely old men to a speedy demise with a socko dose of poison in their homemade wine. Fortunately for them, their live-in nephew Teddy (Tim Setzer) believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt and is happy to dig graves in the cellar, otherwise known as Panama, for each new "yellow fever victim."

Teddy's brother Mortimer (Michael Coury Murdock), a well-known theatre critic, has developed a romance with Elaine Harper (Julianne Bradbury), who resides next door to the Brewsters with her minister father (Rick Love). By chance, Mortimer finds the latest victim, elderly Mr. Hoskins, temporarily stowed in the window seat, which leads him to interrogate his aunts, uncovering their nefarious activities that have dispatched twelve men so far.

When the third Brewster brother, notorious criminal Jonathan (Michael Schaeffer), unexpectedly returns, bringing with him a crooked Dr. Einstein (Rose Roberts) and a dead body of his own, havoc ensues. Complications abound, the police get involved, but hey, it's a comedy and everything will sort out—maybe.

Brocker and Pinomaki are spot on as the charming and determined Brewster sisters, equal parts dotty and shrewd. Bradbury combines a modern spunkiness with feminine wiles to aid Mortimer through the weirdness. Setzer does a delightful turn, thoroughly inhabiting Teddy and his delusions with inspired nuttiness. Murdock sometimes conveys Mortimer's urbanity, but often misses comedic chances and emotional peaks; it's hard to find him convincing.

Schaeffer knows how to dominate, threaten and intimidate, slinking evilly about. Sometimes his booming vocals are almost too much for the Andrews Hall stage, but his villainy and depravity are complete, and manage to stay comic. Roberts mostly succeeds with a Peter Lorre impersonation, giving us a hapless, weary cohort in crime.

The rest of the ensemble serve the story well, including Miles Ainley, Owen Hardesty, Rick Love and Zachary Stockton as amusing local constabulary, and Richard Romero and George Bereschik in small but memorable roles.

Director Michael Ross rushes over some comic opportunities and can't avoid blocking issues entirely, but captures the tone and pacing required. An entirely black and white set by Michael Walraven and similar palette for costumes by Janis Snyder conceptually reminds us of a black and white film era, perhaps, but becomes less interesting over time. When bits of burgundy finally show up it's a welcome visual relief. Sound design by Jess Johnson enhances the action, and lighting by Courtney Johnson effectively creates darkness for action scenes. Wigs by Pamela Johnson look natural and attractive for the aunts and Jonathan, but one wonders why there is no wig for Dr. Einstein. Richard Pallaziol engineers excellent comedic skirmishes.

If a chestnut needs staging, it's nice for it to get an enjoyable rendition in an entertaining main stage production, as this one does at Sonoma Arts Live.

Arsenic and Old Lace, through February 10, 2019, by Sonoma Arts Live, at Sonoma Community Center, 276 East Napa St., Sonoma CA. Tickets $28.00-$40.00 can be purchased online at or by phone at 866-710-8942.