Murder and comedy at Landmark

Amy Archer-Gilligan was a Connecticut senior citizen, who made headlines in the early 19th Century as a serial killer. It was reported that she ran a convalescent home, later described as a “murder factory,”  and that as many as 100 victims found their way to her door.

Playwright Joseph Kesselring reinvented the story to feature two delightful senior sisters with a passion for killing off lonely old men and in 1941 he had a Broadway hit on his hands. Kesselring wasn’t the only artist fascinated by the story. Director Frank Capra filmed it and as soon as the play closed in New York, the movie starring Cary Grant was released in 1944.

More than 60 years later, the play is still being featured on stages across the country. Landmark Community Theatre at the Thomaston Opera House currently has the farcical black comedy on its boards and audiences are still laughing at the little old ladies who lace their elderberry wine with arsenic.  Director Lucia Dressel balances the comedy and societal taboo of murder as carefully as a tightrope walker. Her reward is plenty of laughter.

A true community theater event, the Thomaston production does not feature young women playing mature women. Mary Wilson and Carolyn Finch play sisters Abbey and Martha Brewster respectively. They both look delightful in their period garb and even though some lines were dropped, they managed to stay in character. Chuck Stango plays Teddy Roosevelt and brother to the insane sisters and Eric Wilczak plays the Rev. Dr. Happer, father to the charming Elaine Happer played by Lynn D’Ambrosi. Ryan Wantroba steps into the role of Mortimer, the only sane member of the household. Jonathan Ross and Charles Merlis make a good pair as diabolical killers, with Ross as long lost brother and Merlis as Dr. Einstein. Rounding off the cast are Carl Sanderson, Wade Elmer, Joshua Luszczak, Matthew Albert, and John Droney.

Kesselring had a good time creating Mortimer as an unhappy and unwilling theater critic. One of the best scenes in the production is when Mortimer describes the “stupid” scene when the protagonist does not pay attention to the danger he is in and winds up bound and gagged. As Mortimer describes the stupidity, insisting on how unrealistic a plot it is, he is actually bound and gagged. The scene worked like a charm.

Not all scenes worked so well. The set generally serves the production well, though the window above the window seat made for awkward entrances. The lighting didn’t help much. When Mortimer looks out the window and discusses the bird he sees, it’s pitch-black through the window. As a matter of fact it’s always pitch-black through that window.

In spite of the opening night glitches, the audience found the production entertaining.

It plays through March 29. Box office: 860-283-8558.

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association.  She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]

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