Arsenic and Old Lace

Migration Hall will stage its own version of the classic play and Frank Capra movie starring Cary Grant Arsenic and Old Lace on March 1-3.

A local production of Joseph Kesselring’s enduring dark comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace” will take audiences on a killer romp when it debuts March 1-3 at Migration Hall in Kingsville, Ontario, helmed by director Norm Ross.

The play centers around the Brewster sisters, two spinster aunts who have taken to ending the suffering of lonely old men by poisoning them with elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide. When their nephew Mortimer discovers their shocking secret, he must deal with the situation while trying to prevent his brother Teddy, who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt, from discovering the bodies in the window seat.


First debuting on Broadway in 1941, “Arsenic and Old Lace” became an instant hit. The play ran for over three years in its initial production, spurring numerous touring productions across the country as well as a 1944 film adaptation starring Cary Grant. Now considered an American comedy classic, the play endures through continuous stagings by both professional theatre companies and community theatre troupes alike.

Ross, a self-proclaimed “former educator, a former principal at KDHS and long-standing arts advocate,” is no stranger to the stage. Currently “actively involved in Migration Hall productions,” he took on this classic work for dual reasons. “My motivation has a dual purpose: the chance to stage a captivating and masterfully written play, like Arsenic and Old Lace, while also supporting the vital cultural and artistic community center that is Migration Community Hall Kingsville.”

In directing such an oft-performed piece, Ross aimed “to discover the layers of nuance and subtext” so as to highlight the legendary humor. He also closely analyzed the characters to determine how to translate each one’s unique personality into vivid performances.

“Initially, I delved into the play itself, to discover the layers of nuance and subtext,” he noted. “This allowed me to envision how the comedic elements would come alive on stage through the diverse talents of our cast. Next, through analyzing the characters, I imagined how everyone’s unique personality could be vividly portrayed through their words and actions. Lastly, after immersing myself in various versions of the play – from film to TV and community productions – I developed a sense of how to infuse the production with a distinctive and memorable flair.”

Bringing the show to fruition posed many challenges, primarily stemming from scheduling issues. Following their radio rendition of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the timeline was tight to mount “Arsenic” prior to March Break. Casting further tested Ross as he worked around numerous scheduling conflicts to secure talent. Even finding rehearsal space proved tricky with Migration Hall fully reserved. Thankfully, Harrow United Church offered their venue.

Central to the play’s brilliance is its delicate balance of dark comedy and farce. As Ross noted, “The delicate balance lies in juxtaposing what appears to be normal with the obviously absurd.” He elaborated. “Characters must subtly adhere to their outrageously abnormal beliefs while maintaining an outwardly mundane existence. The audience must believe that the characters are living an abnormal life within the bounds of normalcy.”

In developing the principal characters, Ross described the process as a collaborative undertaking involving both the production crew and cast members.

“With the Brewster sisters, Mary Grace Weir, Allison Still, and myself, engaged in deliberate discussions about their interactions, resulting in their authentic portrayal of joy – even in the most inappropriate places,” he said. “As with another pair of characters, their development lies in their striking differences. Teddy exudes a wildly zany and energetic demeanor, while O’Hara masters the art of being tediously boring and extremely funny simultaneously.”

Ross also faced the challenge of keeping such a familiar work feeling fresh, which he attributed to the balance between tradition and innovation.

“Sometimes, the refences in the play feel dated, which poses a challenge for modern audiences to appreciate the original intent,” he added. “To address this, we adjusted some older references and replaced them with more universally recognized ones. But the changes remain firmly rooted in the 1940’s context. I think the key to maintaining freshness and engagement for the cast and audience lies in the balance between tradition and innovation. By respecting the play’s roots, while infusing modern elements, we hope to captivate audiences. Surprisingly, I believe that this play has not been locally performed for many years, providing us with an opportunity to craft an engaging experience through strong performances, detailed set design, and a skilled production team.”

In discussing the play’s examination of family dynamics, Ross joked that “While all families may have skeletons in their closet, the Brewsters, well, they just have bodies in their basement!”

Costume design plays a crucial role in developing the eccentric characters. Teddy Brewster’s outfits must connect to the different phases of Theodore Roosevelt’s life. Meanwhile, the Brewster sisters go from hosting genteel tea parties to conducting funerals, contrasting scenarios that heighten the comedy.

When asked for a favorite moment, Ross highlighted a comic exchange between Mortimer and Elaine discussing bible verses and distilled waters. “One line of dialogue that stands out for me, is when Mortimer tells Elaine, his love interest, ‘He’d have time to lead her beside distilled waters.’ To which Abby Brewster replies, ‘Mortimer, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you quote the bible.’ Ross said.

With opening night approaching, Ross ultimately hopes people can leave their troubles behind. “In this shared cultural and artistic space, we hope the audience is surrounded by the entertaining environment and can simply laugh and revel in the joy of experiencing the play.”

So come prepared to look for hidden surprises and enjoy some old-fashioned fun when the curtain rises on “Arsenic and Old Lace.” As Ross teased, “It concerns a local author and the role he plays in this comedy, so pay attention closely!”

“Arsenic and Old Lace” runs March 1-3 at Migration Hall in Kingsville Tickets are available online at

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