Playing the character of the “evil nephew” in “Arsenic and Old Lace” seems to suit Eric Wertz quite well.
The Coupeville High School junior was describing his role in the play during a rehearsal Monday night when he suddenly broke into one of his lines, his tone turning so sinister that it gave a fellow student within earshot a chill.
“He scares me!” freshman Helen Sinclair said. “It’s creepy how good he is.”
Coupeville High School’s Wolf PAC Theatre Troupe will be performing “Arsenic and Old Lace,” four times over the next two weekends. The first show will be at 7 p.m. Friday in the school’s Performing Arts Center.
There was a nervous buzz by cast members in anticipation of the fast approaching opening night, yet also a sense that they were tackling something special.
Not only is “Arsenic and Old Lace” a stage classic by American playwright Joseph Kesselring, it is a challenging, fast-paced, very twisted dark comedy that demands careful attention to timing.
It is exactly the sort of play that appeals to Wertz, who’s been acting in Coupeville stage productions since the seventh grade and was eager to graduate to a more central, villain-type role as Jonathan Brewster.
The whole Brewster family is made up of homicidal maniacs. Desirae Bradley and Bree Daigneault play Martha and Abby Brewster, Jonathan’s spinster aunts who come across as sweet and innocent except for a peculiar habit of poisoning a long line of lonely old men.
But there’s competition over who’s responsible for the greatest body count. Wertz’s character doesn’t disguise his nastiness.
“Keep in mind, I’m willing to kill anyone who gets on my nerves,” said Wertz, whose character ponders making his brother Mortimer Brewster, played by Nikolai Lyngra, his 13th victim.
Twenty members of Coupeville’s drama club have been preparing to bring the show to the school stage since late January, under the tutelage of longtime advisor Peg Tennant.
Tennant said that the farce requires “absolutely impeccable timing,” which has been one of the biggest challenges.
“You’ve got to be on your toes,” Daigneault said.
Tennant credited Stefanie Ask, an English and drama teacher, with playing a key role in preparing the students, including one-on-one character development.
Some of the students analyzed the play in Ask’s “Introduction to Theater” class prior to the start of rehearsals.
“We were really pumped to do it,” Bradley said.
Still, the collective stress level to learn the play in a little more than a month has been pretty high, Bradley said.
But there’s been no shortage of having fun in the process.
Tamika Nastali plays the part of Teddy Brewster, the brother of Jonathan and Mortimer who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt.
“It’s pretty fun actually,” Nastali said. “He thinks he’s the president. I get to be in charge and everything.
“He’s off in his own world. He’s not all there.”
Becoming another character onstage is what Wertz also enjoys about theater. He describes himself as more introverted offstage. But when he’s around his drama club family, he feels he can cut loose.
“I like the role a lot,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed villain characters in shows.”
Wertz and others also can now enjoy their parts without projecting their voices over the hum of the performing arts center’s old HVAC unit.
It was replaced over the summer with a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system that no longer makes voices on stage hard to hear.
“If you can imagine the heater in your house amplified by 500,” Bradley said.
But now the focus is on just what’s happening onstage, which the cast hopes will be memorable this month.
The show will take place at 7 p.m. March 3, 4, 10 and 11.