What it took to play a dead body in Arsenic and Old Lace


Mac McDonald

“For a gallon of elderberry wine, I take one teaspoon full of arsenic, then add half a teaspoon full of strychnine, and then just a pinch of cyanide,” said Soph. Grace Bruins character, Aunt Martha.  West Ottawa Theatre’s winter play, Arsenic and Old Lace, was about two elderly ladies who are serial killers and have been poisoning old men with their homemade elderberry wine. When the play began, the two old ladies have already killed twelve gentlemen. Instead of using a lifesize dummy as the dead bodies, two students were cast as the dead bodies.


In the play, Soph. Liam Boone plays Mr. Hoskins, one of the dead bodies who drank the poisoned wine.He was a Methodist and his family struggled quite a bit in the Great Depression. He had been living on the street and found the Brewster House and that they had rooms for rent,” Boone said. In the middle of the first act, Brewster’s nephew Johnathan and his friend Doctor Herman Einstien came to the house with a dead body. The dead body is Mr. Spenalzo, played by Jr. Seth Gibson. “For Mr. Spenalzo, there was no canon. We came up with the idea that Spenalzo was an elementary school principal before he was killed by Johnny,” Gibson said.


“Gravity was my best friend. You just go with the flow and act like a rag doll. I learned my lines really quickly, mostly cause I didn’t have any. The best part is to enjoy the theatre experience with the least amount of stress,” Boone said.


In the play, Boone’s character, Mr. Hoskins, was carried down to the cellar by Sr. Matt Scheneman’s character Teddy Brewster. “I have to trust Matt quite a bit. If I fall I fall on my head then bad things can happen,” said Boone.

  “I’ve had trouble picking Liam up. But I’ve never dropped him. Liam had to trust me with his dead body. He was always able to move into a comfortable position if needed. In real life, I would be too afraid to pick up a corpse and touch it. Thank God that Liam was alive,” Scheneman said. In the set, there was a spot where Boone could crawl through so he wouldn’t be stuck in a window seat for the first act. When Boone was taken out of the window seat, there was a space for two other characters to bring in a carcass through the window.


Johnathan Brewster and Dr. Einstien, played by Soph. David Dannels and Soph. Ben Hoey, brought in Gibson through a window. “I’ve really had to trust them. They are the ones carrying my body around the stage. They never let me down,” Gibson said. “We didn’t drop Seth. His entrance is a little bit sloppy. But we never dropped him. We’ve had to prepare a lot. Handling the dead body with two people is harder than you would think. With an alive dummy, it’s hard to that because he is still alive,” said Hoey.

  In the show, Dannels character Johnathan Brewster is the cause one of the dead bodies seen in the show. “My character, Johnathan, is very proud of killing people. By the time we meet him in the play he has killed 12 people so far. I was strong enough to hold up Seth with Ben. It takes a lot of teamwork. We never dropped him accidentally, only on purpose when he went through the window. Though, I was dropped by George Iles when Johnathan is fighting the cops. I’m not even a dead body! We all trusted each other because we have worked on previous shows together. So the whole live dummy thing was fine,” Dannels said.


Working as a real life dummy is both stress-free and requires a lot of trust from both the “dead” actors and the people carrying them.