Joseph Kesselring’s legendary comedy Arsenic and Old Lace is part of the summer season at Berkshire Theatre Group. The sumptuous revival is directed by Gregg Edelman and stars Mia Dillon and Harriet Harris as the mischievous Brewster sisters, who discover they have a knack for poisoning older gentlemen. I spoke to the director and his two leading ladies about the revival.
The Brewster sisters are two of the best comedic creations in theatre. Harriet and Mia, why did you want to play them?
Mia Dillon: As you said, they’re two of the best creations in theatre and what better way to spend your summer than poisoning old men?
Was it intimidating at all to take on the Brewster sisters?
Mia Dillon: It’s a brilliant stage comedy, we had great fun rehearsing it, we have a fabulous group of actors and director, what more can you ask for?
Can you talk about the challenges in making comedies, since you rely so much on the audience reaction?
Harriet Harris: I think you just tell the story, you listen to each other, I don’t think it’s that much of a challenge really. It’s the same basic skill, you listen to people, you make sure you’re telling the story without interfering with it.
What would you say, if anything at all, do you each have in common with Martha and Abby?
Mia Dillon: I’m a good cook! I like mixing things although none of my recipes so far have used cyanide or arsenic.
Harriet Harris: I love my family, I think I’m right about things a lot.
Mia Dillon: Harriet and I had never met until a couple of months ago, I’ve admired her for years, and we share a best friend, and we met over a meal, we cooked together, we met in the kitchen and that’s very Martha and Abby.
Gregg, you’ve been pretty quiet. Can you talk about what you get from directing that acting doesn’t provide you?
Gregg Edelman: The great thing about directing is you get to put your vision of the piece as a whole from the get-go of casting, set design, all the way through rehearsals, suggesting rhythms to the actors. When you’re acting you can’t judge anything coming to you from another actor, you just have to respond to it. You have your chore and stay in your world. As a director you have a wider viewpoint.
I might be presumptuous but I’ll guess that a comedy like Arsenic is what most of us crave given the year we’ve had. Why is it so important for us to have art that helps us escape from our world?
Gregg Edelman: There have been periods in theatre and cinema when people embrace more serious things. Drama and comedy are always happening, but there are times when you have shows like Thirtysomething, Hill Street Blues and others that were very prominent, there were times on Broadway when we had Les Miserables, or the go-go 80s, I think when times get harder people embrace comedy, regardless of your political stripe this is a very difficult time for all of us. Whether or not you’re Republican or Democrat you’re worried about things like North Korea, so in times like these people embrace comedy and heartwarming qualities.
Harriet Harris: There’s a wonderful line in the play that I like a lot, it was written in 1939 as people in America started realizing about what was happening in Europe, so Abby says “well let’s not talk about the war”, but it’s been brought up so that everybody in the audience isn’t living in complete disbelief, and there’s not a complete separation of what happens inside and outside the theater, instead you’re saying “it’s OK, let it go for two hours”, when you go out the door reality will be waiting for you, but just enjoy yourself for a moment, enjoy the palliative care of a laugh. It’s a gift for the actors too, and one we want to give to the audience.
What gifts from other artists have helped you out this year?
Harriet Harris: Sargent painting are so beautiful, they might have nothing to do with the show, but I find them very uplifting, they are luminous and ethereal. The Met brought that show to people and gave them access to his work. That was beautiful and generous.
Mia Dillon: The arts add so much to your life and ground you. In the Berkshires there’s so much art, there are so many theaters, we all went to hear James Taylor play. Turning to the arts is food for your soul, turning to the news just agitates you when there’s really nothing you can do about it outside the ballot box and reaching out to politicians. We spend too much time in this 24 hours news cycle, focused on things that are out of our control. At home you should do things that do make a difference: feeding your soul with happy potions, it does send ripples out into the world. If you’re nice to a person on the street, they might be nicer to the next person they meet. We’re all in this together. The world is getting more and more crowded, the little gestures we do to make this world more pleasant to live in the better. Abby and Martha after all were trying to make the world a better place...and if that involves death for some elderly gentlemen, well, we’ve just made their journey a little nicer.
Harriet Harris: At one point they say, “Brooklyn and the spirit of Brooklyn is friendliness” and they’re the same ladies poisoning these gentlemen (laughs)
I have to ask then, what’s your poison of choice during the summer?
Mia Dillon: My next door neighbor has been concocting this wonderful thing called rhubarb fizz. It’s lightly fermented rhubarb, I need to get the recipe.
Gregg Edelman: Is there more alcohol in it?
Mia Dillon: My neighbor’s is just slightly fermented, it’s rhubarb, sugar and lemon juice. It’s quite delicious.
Gregg Edelman: When I went to Italy I started drinking Aperol Spritzes, they’re very refreshing and have a very pleasant color.
Harriet Harris: You were also telling me about a distillery in the Berkshires.
Gregg Edelman: The Berkshire Mountain Distillers, do you know it Jose?
No, I’ve never been.
Gregg Edelman: Are you old enough?
Too old even.
Gregg Edelman: You sound quite young. Anyway it’s a wonderful place! You also can’t go wrong with a martini. Gin, like God intended it.
Vodka martinis aren’t real.
Harriet Harris: That’s my dad’s drink of choice.
I don’t think there’s a musical version of Arsenic and Old Lace. If there was one what would you want it to sound like?
Gregg Edelman: That’s what so hard with these period plays. You can imagine some swing music, but it’s very hard to write wit in songs. There’s a lot of wonderful, witty dialogue in the play. It would be something you wouldn’t want to inflict a period sound on, you’d probably want someone like Sondheim who can write without period.
Harriet Harris: I think you’d lose something. This is a very short three act play, and even if nowadays people wanna be in and out fast, if you look at this play there is nothing to cut. If you had to trim the dialogue for songs, you would lose something.
Gregg Edelman: When you adapt something it needs to have room for the music. This is not a piece that could stand that.
Harriet Harris: There’s a line when Mortimer says his family is like Strindberg and Hellzapoppin and that’s what we would be if we were a musical.
Arsenic and Old Lace runs through August 19. For more information click here.