A traditional Victorian dining room set. A young Black man is seated at the table center. On either side of him are two older Black women, both gesturing toward him and talking.
From left: Celeste Williams, Eric Gerard, and TayLar in Arsenic and Old Lace at Court Theatre Credit: Michael Brosilow

Long before the term “meta” entered common parlance there was Arsenic and Old Lace, a 1939 play by Joseph Kesselring about how plays are ridiculous. It’s also a play about the difference between reality and appearance, embodied by the saintly Brewster sisters and their killer elderberry wine.

Arsenic and Old Lace
Through 10/2: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; audio description Sat 10/1 2 PM (touch tour 12:30 PM), open captions Sun 10/2 2 PM, ASL interpretation Sun 10/2 7:30 PM, Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org, $40.50-$82

But don’t let my interpretive flourishes put you off: Arsenic and Old Lace is still the comedy you remember about crazy people who think they’re sane driving genuinely sane people crazy. Mortimer Brewster (Eric Gerard, charming and preternaturally graceful) discovers that his aunts have been poisoning old men and having them buried in the cellar by their nephew Teddy (an appropriately stentorian Allen D. Edge), who imagines he’s Teddy Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal. The aunts (TayLar and Celeste Williams, each with her own perfectly-rendered version of old-maidhood) don’t see that they’re doing anything wrong, despite a strict moral code which frowns on Mortimer’s exposure to the sinful world of theater. When long-lost nephew Jonathan (A.C. Smith, in a comically terrifying high state of pissed-ivity) shows up toting a body of his own, complications—more complications!—ensue.  

Director Ron OJ Parson handles this multi-ring circus with the perfect light touch. The ensemble plays the text’s outlandishness as if it were ordinary behavior and couples it with superb bits of physical comedy. John Culbert’s scene design conjures a Victorian dream house, complete with a staircase sturdy enough for Teddy’s repeated charges up San Juan Hill and a window seat capacious enough for several bodies at a time.