by Erin Bradley
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College has two more special 125th anniversary events set for this school year. The next one will be staging a popular American comedy some think might have been inspired on campus.
Plus, it will feature the Bethel swan song for two sisters who’ve been involved in Bethel theater since they were freshmen: Audra and Julia Miller of Hesston, who will play sisters Martha and Abby Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace, April 25, 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m. each evening in Krehbiel Auditorium.
In Joseph Kesselring’s classic comedy, which debuted on Broadway in January 1941, Abby and Martha are the two charming elderly aunts of theater critic Mortimer Brewster, who is horrified to discover that the sisters “practice Christian charity” by inviting lonely old men to tea and helping them transition to the hereafter by poisoning them with arsenic-laced elderberry wine.
The sisters stash the bodies in their living room window seat, after which Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, conveniently disposes of these “yellow fever victims” in the “Panama Canal” he’s digging in the cellar.
Mortimer’s world starts to unravel when he discovers his aunts’ murderous mission and when his other brother, the sinister Jonathan, shows up.
Kesselring wrote 12 plays, including There’s Wisdom in Women (1935) and Four Twelves are 48 (1951), but Arsenic and Old Lace is the only one most people have heard of.
Kesselring’s claim to Bethel fame has to do with the two years he taught voice there, including giving private lessons and directing both the men’s and women’s glee clubs, 1922-24.
According to the Bethel website, “Kesselring, age 20, lived in Goerz House [now the president's residence] with other young bachelor teachers. He was at Bethel almost three years… A built-in under-window storage chest similar to one in the Goerz House living room plays an important role in the play.”
This history was important to John McCabe-Juhnke, professor of communication arts and director of the 2013 production of Arsenic and Old Lace, when decisions were being made about the 2012-13 theater schedule.
“Since [2012-13] is the 125-year celebration for Bethel College, there was some interest expressed last year at the administrative level for doing a production that would tie in specifically with Bethel’s history,” McCabe-Juhnke said.
“[When] Arsenic and Old Lace was suggested,” he continued, “it seemed to make perfect sense since the playwright has a Bethel connection, he lived in Goerz House when he was a teacher here, and some even suggest the set is designed after the structure and design of Goerz House. So it’s a great way to link to the 125th celebration.”
McCabe-Juhnke also chose the play for its characters and comedy.
“It is so funny, “ he said. “It is very cleverly crafted. The characters are interesting people to engage with for the couple of hours the curtain is up.
“I mean, these dear old aunts are the sweetest things and have this awful secret they don’t think is awful. They believe they are doing the work of the church – that their Christian mission is to help lonely old men pass on to the next world. The disconnect between people we just want to love, and the horrible thing they are doing, is the trajectory for the comedy of the play.”
Along with its college connection, the Bethel production of Arsenic and Old Lace has a unique cast characteristic: twin sisters Julia and Audra Miller playing Abby and Martha Brewster.
The Miller sisters made their debut on the Bethel stage as freshmen in Our Town (though they didn’t play related characters), so it’s fitting to have them end their run together.
“Because Julia and Audra know each other, they know how to synchronize,” said McCabe-Juhnke, “and that has been fun already. It’s an honor for them, too, since they’re seniors who have been very involved in theater – a great way for them to celebrate their years of performance on the Bethel stage.”
The sisters couldn’t agree more, though they didn’t audition with the intention of playing opposite each other.
However, said Julia, “At auditions, I got to read [with] Audra, as the old sisters, and I was like, ‘This is just too much fun. If I get to play opposite of my sister – as her sister – how can I pass this up?’”
Although this is their first time playing sisters – their first time playing opposite each other in general – the Millers are finding the new experience to be a good one.
“It’s a lot easier in terms of relational chemistry, bouncing off each other’s energy, easier than if we were having to build that chemistry from the get-go,” Julia said.
“Right,” Audra added. “We already have that connection, so we can just build on it. So it’s not hard. It’s not awkward.”
As they wrap up their last production, the characters, cast and play all make Arsenic and Old Lace a good way for the sisters to end their Bethel theater careers.
“A lot of the characters are almost caricatures, so you’ve got all these weird characters interacting,” Audra said. “It’s a very clever script. Some of the scenes where no one is really talking are the best.”
“Overall, it’s just a really good cast,” Julia added. “Besides getting to play opposite Audra, [acting with] people I have done shows with for years and some new people, too – it’s really, really fun.”
In addition to Julia Miller as Abby Brewster and Audra Miller as Martha Brewster, the cast is Chris Riesen, senior from Beatrice, Neb., as Mortimer Brewster; Cody Claassen, junior from Whitewater, as Teddy Brewster; Mycah Westhoff, junior from Newton, as Mortimer’s fiancée Elaine Harper; Creigh Bartel, senior from Newton, as Jonathan Brewster; Luke Loganbill, sophomore from Moundridge, as Dr. Einstein; Nik Krahn, junior from Mountain Lake, Minn., as the Rev. Dr. Harper; Aaron Rudeen, senior from Osage City, as Lieutenant Rooney; Cris Nelson, junior from Wichita, as Officer Brophy; Micah Smith, junior from Topeka, as Officer Klein; Aaron Tschetter, junior from Freeman, S.D., as Officer O’Hara; Dalton Smith, junior from Burrton, as Mr. Gibbs; and Jesse Voth-Gaeddert, junior from Hesston, as Mr. Witherspoon.
Tickets are $10 adults; $8 non-Bethel students and adults age 65 and older; and $5 Bethel students. Tickets are on sale at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center on the Bethel campus during regular business hours, or at the door starting one-half hour before the performance, subject to availability.
Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.