"Arsenic and Old Lace," being staged by Flock, was spurred by a true crime story

Eric Michaelian and Amy Melissa Bentley star in Flock Theatre's production of 'Arsenic and Old Lace.' (Courtesy Flock Theatre)
Eric Michaelian and Amy Melissa Bentley star in Flock Theatre's production of "Arsenic and Old Lace." (Courtesy Flock Theatre)

Here's a based-on-a-true-story fact that you might not know: the classic comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace," about little old ladies who poison little old men, was inspired by an actual case in Windsor, Connecticut.

Amy Archer-Gilligan, who lived in Windsor in the early 1900s, poisoned the food of some of her elderly boarders for their pensions. She did in one of her husbands, too. Exactly how many fell to Archer-Gilligan's wicked ways isn't certain, although some investigators thought it could be dozens. She was sentenced in 1919 to life in prison and was moved five years later to a state psychiatric hospital, where she died in 1962 at age 93.

Playwright Joseph Kesselring took the kernel of all that and transformed it into a stage work. According to legend, he was going to make it a drama before producers convinced him it would work as a comedy. In any case, the result is a dark comedy about two spinster aunts poisoning the elderberry wine of lonely old men. That 1941 play and Frank Capra's 1944 film adaptation starring Cary Grant became beloved pieces.

Flock Theatre Artistic Director Derron Wood knew of "Arsenic and Old Lace," of course, but it was just recently that he learned that it was based on a Connecticut story. When he ended up in Windsor while doing Connecticut Freedom Trail research for a project he's doing with the state on arts integration in schools, he came across an article about the Archer-Gilligan "murder factory." He read about what a sensational trial it was.

The fact that there was such a strong Connecticut tie convinced him that the New London-based Flock Theatre should stage the show.

"Even though the original story is nothing like what happens with the play, it's a great reason and it's a great connection," Wood says.

And it's a legendary comedy. In addition to the sweet old murderous aunts, the eccentric Brewster family in "Arsenic and Old Lace" includes: a crazy soul who believes he's Teddy Roosevelt; a killer who underwent plastic surgery to hide his identity; and the show's main figure, Mortimer, a drama critic who plans to wed his girlfriend.

Wood says the storyline fits perfectly with the layout of New London's Shaw Mansion, where Flock will perform the show Friday through Feb. 28.

"There's a staircase for Teddy to go charging up. In the story, it talks about grandfather's laboratory, and the Shaw-Perkins house at one point housed a doctor's office. There are all these different other connections into it," Wood says.

He adds, "I know the play itself is set in Brooklyn, but they really are Yankee characters — just the passive-aggressive manipulation, the way (the two aunts) talk just always cracks me up."

The show has a quick pace and requires a specific style of acting from the performers.

"A term we keep using is crisp," Wood says. "The dialogue is very fast and precise and crisp. You can see that in some of the movies of the time period and especially the movie of 'Arsenic and Old Lace' how quickly they reply and how their word choice is very precise."

As for the physical aspect of the comedy, he says, "my mind goes to Dick Van Dyke, the way he would physicalize stuff. There isn't a movement or gesture that is not adding to the story."

The cast features plenty of actors familiar to Flock audiences. Suzanne McCormick and Denise Shultzman, who have both, for instance, done "The Cherry Orchard" and "Pride and Prejudice" with Flock, play the aunts here. Eric Michaelian takes on the role of Mortimer that Cary Grant filled in the film, and Amy Bentley is Mortimer's beloved; Michaelian and Bentley recently portrayed Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with Flock.

"We're all having a blast," Wood says. "It's hysterical. It's hard sometimes to direct it and keep a straight face."

The rest of Flock's year will include a fundraising gala on March 5 at the Thames Club in New London. Flock is remounting its "Romeo and Juliet" from two years ago because of interest from schools, along with "Edward III," an old play that has recently been attributed to Shakespeare.

During the summer, Flock will stage "Taming of the Shrew" and, if they can get the rights, Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."

Flock had originally hoped to do "Long Day's Journey" last year. But a version of "Long Day's Journey" starring Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne will open on Broadway in April, and that fact restricted the rights to productions around New York, New England, L.A. and Chicago. The New York production is scheduled to end its run on June 26, and theaters can apply for rights after the Broadway show closes. Flock is hoping it can obtain the rights then and perform the show in August.

One last note about the real Archer-Gilligan story: It's still continuing. Just last fall, the case was in the news again when the state Supreme Court ruled that Archer-Gilligan's medical records would remain sealed, despite a request that they be opened from an author who wanted to write a book about her.

"Arsenic and Old Lace," Shaw Mansion, 11 Blinman St., New London; runs Fri. through Feb. 28; 7 p.m. Fri. and Sat. and 2 p.m. Sun.; for previews, which are this weekend, tickets are $25 ($20 for students, seniors, active military); for other performances, tickets are $30 ($25 students, seniors, active military); (860) 443-3119,

flocktheatre@hotmail.com.

Bill Steinmayer stars in Flock Theatre's production of 'Arsenic and Old Lace.' (Courtesy Flock Theatre)
Bill Steinmayer stars in Flock Theatre's production of "Arsenic and Old Lace." (Courtesy Flock Theatre)

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