Arsenic and Old Lace


Theatre presents dark comedy ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’

Dark comedy plays a central role in Bluffton University’s fall play, “Arsenic and Old Lace” by Joseph Kesselring. The play centers around theatre critic Mortimer Brewster, whose charming and charitable aunts have an unusual ministry – helping lonely boarders to their heavenly rest by serving poisoned elderberry wine. 

“I think the dark humor comes from turning our expectations on their head a little bit,” said Dr. Melissa Friesen, director and chair of the art, communication and theatre department. “The surprise and shock at what we would think these lovely, charitable ladies should be doing for their charity is completely upended. Expectations being turned around is a really fun part of the play and is what creates a lot of the mayhem and the chaos and the humor of the play.”

Friesen was drawn to the play because it provides the audience with a well-written, comical script that is fairly well known. 

“It’s a really funny show so I thought students would like it. There are a lot of farcical elements to it which are really delightful,” Friesen said. “It’s got colorful characters, so that’s fun for the actors and the audience.”

Adam Shanaman ’22, a Bible and theology major and theatre minor from Bellevue, Ohio, plays Mortimer Brewster, the lead role. Shanaman’s character primarily reports on murder mysteries, which leads to some meta-moments later in the play. 

“The thing that resonates most with me is how well-written and truly brilliant the show is,” Shanaman said. “There is always so much going on at any given moment of the play and it all serves a purpose.”

The cast consists of 10 first-year students and three sophomores. Friesen said she’s enjoyed working with such a young team, particularly in terms of getting the timing of the comedic aspects of the play right so it’s not too over the top and dramatic, even in ridiculous situations. 

“Getting to know the cast and developing their love of theatre and watching them gain experience makes my heart sing,” Friesen said. “It’s so beautiful and exciting to have a cast who’s so energized and really wanting the play to succeed. That elevates the project.”

Friesen considers the play a 1940s classic in the theatre world. And while the play is famous for its dark humor, the audience will also experience some good wholesome values. 

“Something the audience will take away is that no matter the circumstances, family is one of the most important and complicated things that we have the wonderful misfortune of having in our lives. Love conquers all,” Shanaman said.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” is presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc., New York. 

Performances of “Arsenic and Old Lace” will take place at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 31-Nov. 2 and 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 3 in Bluffton University’s Ramseyer Auditorium. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for senior citizens, Bluffton University faculty and staff, and non-Bluffton University students. Bluffton University students are able to see the play for free. Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 419-358-3239. 

Aubrey Bartel ’20, PR student writer