The last thing -- the VERY last thing -- you might expect to find in the window seat at the home of your dear, sweet old aunties is a dead body. And the wide-eyed, open-mouthed, hair-standing-on-end reaction of Cary Grant's Mortimer Brewster is one of the most beloved -- and funniest -- moments of the 1944 film "Arsenic and Old Lace."
"There will be a window seat, and there will be a reaction similar to a double-take that we're still polishing and working on," promises Brandon Bolin, director of the Fort Smith Little Theatre production opening Sept. 21. "Because of the half-round setup of the theater, the window seat is against the back wall rather than to the side of the stage, and I don't want Mortimer's initial reaction to be lost. So it will have to be modified from the classic double-take that some might be expecting. But you will definitely see the surprise and horror on his face at what he has just discovered!"
And that's before Mortimer -- a New York theater critic newly wed to the minister's daughter Elaine (Carol Sikes) -- begins to piece together that darling Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby have another dozen dead bodies in the basement of their prim and proper Victorian home. And that his delightfully crazy Uncle Teddy has been helping bury them. And that the stranger in the window seat later in the play is not one of their "gentlemen" but a victim of his other crazy uncle, Jonathan (Charles Belt) and his Peter Lorre-inspired sidekick, Dr. Einstein (Steven Howard).
"I don't think it's very original of me to say that I think this show is hilarious," Bolin admits. But he does. "The play, the movie, any iteration. I have watched Cary Grant open that window seat more times than I can count, and his reaction is just as funny to me now as the first time I watched it. I was also in a production of the play while in college at John Brown University, and I had such an enjoyable experience that it has always been in my mind since then that if I ever had the opportunity to direct it, I would jump at the chance. The witty writing, the sight gags, and the physical comedy in this play never ever get old to me. It's simply one of my favorite stories.
"[Besides] we all have a sweet aunt or grandmother that we love or loved dearly," he adds. "I can't ever watch the movie or the play without picturing my grandmother as one of the aunts. Now, imagine that you discover that your favorite relative has done ... well ... what the Brewster sisters have done! We all become Mortimer in that moment: We're shocked at their behavior, but we also can't imagine turning them in or letting anyone find out about it."
FSLT veteran Micki Voelkel is Aunt Martha, and Barbara Richardson is Aunt Abby.
"I was a character actress all my life, so it's lovely to finally be an appropriate age to play one of the Brewster ladies," says Voelkel, who has been involved with FSLT since she was a youngster. "My character Martha is a bit of a stretch for me because she is the sweeter, more romantic, slightly ditzier of the two sisters, and in real life I'm more of a bossy-pants type. So it has been fun to work with Martha's absolute sincerity and love for her nephews Teddy and Mortimer."
"I love Aunt Abby," says Richardson of her character. "I think she is a good person who has convinced herself that she's fulfilling a need."
Having performed in FSLT's 2005 production of "Arsenic and Old Lace," Rham Cunningham is now having fun creating a different character in this year's show.
"Eighteen years ago, I played Teddy, who was a little cuckoo, and admittedly, that role sort of fit me at the time," he says. "Mortimer, who I play now, is attempting to stay sane, but he's having trouble controlling things that are out of his control. I can certainly relate!"
Brad Nance is Teddy, best known for yelling "CHARGE" at the foot of San Juan Hill.
"We all have a little Teddy inside; the trick is to let him out when no one can see," he says. "And this is why actors and patrons alike enjoy theater!"
'Arsenic and Old Lace'
WHEN -- 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21-23 & 27-30, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Sept. 24
WHERE -- Fort Smith Little Theatre, 401 N. Sixth St.
COST -- $12-$20
INFO -- 783-2966 or fslt.org