Above: Left to right, nephew Mortimer Brewster (Kory Weimer) visits his homicidal aunts Abby and Martha (Nikki Pagniano and Marcee Shriver Long) in Cottage Theatre’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace; photos by Emily Bly

Note from Cottage Theatre: Joshua Sayre plays Officer O’Hara in Arsenic and Old Lace, reflecting a cast change from the lineup originally provided by the theater.)

By Randi Bjornstad

Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those chestnuts of stage and film, written first as a play by Joseph Kesselring in 1939. It opened on Broadway 79 years ago this month (Jan. 10, 1941) at the Fulton Theatre, relocated to the Hudson Theatre 18 months later, and closed in mid-1944 after 1,444 performances.

Earl Ruttencutter, left, and Dylan Skye Kennedy take the roles of villains Jonathan Brewster and Dr. Einstein in Kesselring’s dark comedy

It gained most of its popularity, however, in 1944 when famed producer-director Frank Capra turned it into a movie of the same name, starring Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, nephew of homicidal aunties Martha and Abby, played by Jean Adair and Josephine Hult, and Priscilla Lane as Elaine Harper, Mortimer’s fiancée, who grew up next door.

The cast list also included John Alexander playing the sisters’ younger brother Teddy, who was convinced he actually was Theodore Roosevelt, as well as Raymond Massey in the role of the spinsters’ older, criminally inclined brother Jonathan. Peter Lorre took the role of Dr. Einstein.

On the Cottage Theatre stage, featured actors include Kory Weimer as Mortimer Brewster, with Ashlee Winkler as Elaine Harper. Marcee Shriver Long plays Aunt Martha, and Nikki Pagniano is Aunt Abby. Earl Ruttencutter and Dale Flynn play their brothers, Jonathan and Teddy. Additional actors are Josh Coon, Dylan Skye Kennedy, Joshua Sayre, Blake Nelson, Garrhett Nelson, and James Scoggins.

Keith Kessler directs, with set design by Tony Rust, costumes by Rhonda Turnquist, and lighting design by Amanda Ferguson.

Dale Flynn plays Teddy Brewster, who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt, in Arsenic and Old Lace at the Cottage Theatre

It’s a simple enough plot. The elderly Brewster sisters — supposedly descended from passengers on the Mayflower — have taken up murder as a benevolent pastime, putting lonely elderly men out of their misery via a drink of their homemade elderberry wine that has been doctored with “arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide.”

Their younger brother Teddy, who also lives with them, spends his time digging the Panama Canal in the basement, which conveniently offers a place to stash bodies, which he in his Theodore Roosevelt delusion thinks are workers who died of yellow fever during the canal excavation.

The whole tidy scheme begins to unravel into its dark hilarity when Mortimer and Elaine stop by to visit, and he discovers a corpse hidden in the window seat, awaiting its removal to “Panama.”

Arsenic and Old Lace

When: Evening performances at 8 p.m. on Jan. 31, Feb. 1, 6-8, and 13-15, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Feb. 2, 9, and 16

Where: Cottage Theatre, 700 Village Drive, Cottage Grove (east of the I-5 freeway)

Tickets: $25 for adults, $15 for youths age 18 years and younger, available by telephone at 541-942-8001, online at cottagetheatre.org, or in person at the box office from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and starting one hour before performances

Kory Weimer and Ashlee Winkler play the young lovers Mortimer Brewster and Elaine Harper in Cottage Theatre’s Arsenic and Old Lace