After 20 years away, Jon Maxwell returns to GCP as the sane one in the clever and silly ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’

When I hear the title “Arsenic and Old Lace,” I’m gonna be honest: I’ve probably called it an “old chestnut” more times than there were doilies in my great-grandmother’s living room. (And that’s a lot.)

But after ingesting the fine Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre (now playing through Oct. 8), I’m amending that phrase to something less persnickety:

Pictured above, clockwise from top left: Jon Maxwell in a current head shot; Maxwell and Emily Kearns in ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’; Maxwell in past GCP scenes from ‘Babes in Toyland,’ ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’  Photos: Good Company Players

I’m calling it a “lively chestnut.”

Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic” has lasted so long and is such a staple of community theaters for good reason: It’s clever and silly, has a big cast, and at its core is a big-hearted romp, which is a pretty slick accomplishment, considering it also has a substantial body count. Sure, it still has an old-fashioned vibe, but that just adds to the charm.

Part of that is due to Denise Graziani’s zippy direction, which never lets Kesselring’s script sag even when it’s venturing off into sheer daffiness. And part is due to a stellar cast playing the eccentric Brewster family, from the brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt (Patrick Allan Tromborg) and the brother with the shady past (Ken Stocks) to the genial maiden aunts (Elizabeth Fiester and Shari Wilcox).


One standout is Jon Maxwell, who plays Mortimer Brewster, the “normal” brother. (He’s also a newspaper theater critic, which prompts some great jokes.) Maxwell returns to GCP after a 20-year as a professional actor. His “Arsenic” performance has that solid, assured feel of a veteran. From the moment he bustles onto stage in an energetic burst, his Jonathan comes across with a slightly manic but still grounded befuddlement that balances the quirks of his relatives.

I was intrigued by his program bio (“has a large catalog of national television commercials to his credit”) and perky performance. I caught up with Maxwell for a phone interview and follow-up email Q&A session.

Q: Coming back to the 2nd Space Theatre after 20 years must have been a trip. What was it like to walk into the stage door for that first performance of “Arsenic and Old Lace”?

A: The one thing that is instantly recognizable about that theater is its nostalgia-inducing scent. Every time I set foot inside that building I inhale deeply and am greeted with a flood of pleasant memories. The aroma is quite unique insofar as I have never encountered it anywhere else.

Finally getting to be in a show with Gordon Moore and Henry Montelongo after seeing them in other shows for decades; getting to reunite with Denise Graziani, David Pierce, Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed, and Patrick Alan Tromborg after 20 years; and playing off of a whole host of other talented performers in the cast has been a huge treat.

And everything is almost as it was for its entire 50 years of existence! Obviously there are the usual butterflies that I still get even after decades of performing, but that space provides a comforting feeling like going back to your childhood home or slipping on your favorite pair of sneakers.

Q: Congratulations on a great performance. The play holds up surprisingly well, and I have to admit that the theater-critic jokes about your character crack me up every time I see it. There’s something extra fun about being a theater critic in the audience and being mocked on stage. Have you ever been part of a vigilante mob against a theater critic, or at the very least been to a party with a theater-critic piñata?

A: First and foremost, thank you for the kind words — it is refreshing to hear praise and is greatly appreciated! As someone who has received his fair share of negative reviews or often had their stage presence completely overlooked, I suppose I do take a certain amount of pleasure specifically in those moments of mockery of playwrights and reviewers in the show. As I am not a particularly violent person, I’ve never participated in any cast party with a theater-critic piñata bashing theme… maybe just a dartboard with their face on it.

Incidentally, I was in an absolutely terrible original play in San Diego a couple of decades ago and a local reviewer completely eviscerated everyone involved. The cast, unbeknownst to the show’s director and playwright, banded together and comment-bombed the article online about how ignorant the author was (with varying degrees of rudeness) and that they just didn’t understand the play. The best part is that we each posted under different pseudonyms that were anagrams of the 80-something-year-old playwright’s name and we were all tickled when he realized this and posted his own comment highlighting that fact.

Side note: During rehearsals I sometimes switched up some of Arsenic’s dated references to local people and/or landmarks just to keep things fresh and light (eg. “Blake’s” became “Livingstone’s”, “Nora Bayes Theater” became “Nancy Miller Theater”, “Burns Mantle” became “Donald Munro”)! 😆

Q: Complete the following sentence: Elderberry wine goes best with __________________.

A: I’m certainly no sommelier, but I could absolutely see it pairing well with a steak, hamburger, or some other kind of braised meat. A charcuterie plate would also make a great companion!

Q: I’m in awe of one of your Fresno stories. Not everyone can say they’ve been a squatter in an apartment complex modeled after a French castle, which is the situation when you lived in Normandie Mar in the Tower District while attending Fresno State. Can you elaborate? Did you take an oath to the king of France as you fought against the injustices of your absentee landlord?

A: No oaths were taken to any French royalty per se, but perhaps we paid homage to The French Taunter in “Monty Python and The Holy Grail”?

The abridged version of this story is that I was living with my significant other in the second floor corner dwelling of the Normandie Mar Apartments when the elderly landlord disappeared and the complex started to fall into a state of disrepair. That same year the basement hot water heater burst during a very frigid December and the few tenants that were living there began a mass exodus. We, on the other hand, got gym memberships to take hot showers and continued to live there rent-free.

It is such a beautiful historic building that we took it upon ourselves to keep up appearances using a master set of keys that I surreptitiously obtained. We kept the gardening and lawn maintained and added thrift store lamps and AM/FM radios tuned to news talk programs to give empty units a lived-in appearance in an effort to deter vagrants from attempting to break-in. It was definitely a crazy cat-and-mouse kind of a situation.

Our plan was to do this for as long as it took to potentially take ownership of the building through adverse possession laws, but a little more than a year later a judgement was made in the court system against the landlord and a lien was placed on the property. At that point our fate had been decided for us and we made the move to San Diego.

Q: Another great Fresno story: While at Fresno State you played a vagrant in “Major Barbara.” You grew out your hair and fingernails and dressed way down to get in character. Yet you swear you took a shower every day. How did the cast respond?

A: I would submit that I have always been a character actor at heart and try to take measures to make myself virtually indistinguishable from role to role. So when I got cast in Major Barbara, I let my hair and beard grow out and kept my fingernails long to keep in line with the essence of the character I was playing. Having had a number of years of performing under my belt already, I think my level of dedication made a lot of the cast (who ironically were theater majors) uncomfortable and fueled their own insecurities. Rumors circulated about me going “full method” and ran the gamut from I stopped showering to I started sleeping overnight on park benches — both of which were completely false. At the time it really took a toll on my self-esteem, but after extensive therapy I can look back on it and say I am flattered by how much gossip it all generated.

Q: Your first show for GCP was “Babes in Toyland” back in 1987 when you were young (but I’m not going to ask how young so we won’t do the math). Your audition for Junior Company didn’t go as well, however. Tell us about it.

A: I had been an avid singer all throughout primary school and began nearly every morning singing with my school’s choir. I later auditioned for Junior Company when I was 13 years old with a prepared song selection of “I Won’t Grow Up” from “Peter Pan.” Sadly, when I was called up to perform, my body decided that was an appropriate time for me to begin my pubescent journey into adulthood and my voice cracked throughout the entire arrangement. It was so traumatizing that I stopped singing completely.

It wasn’t until 25 years later that I decided to revisit it as a hobby and sought training from opera singer Meagan Searles Todd. She was so kind and encouraging and was incredulous as to why I would have suppressed this hidden talent for such a long period of time. I owe it to her for giving me the courage to sing again, although I typically don’t do it publicly.

Q: You’ve been based in Los Angeles for 12 years and have carved out a solid career doing mostly commercials and other film/TV work. Can you tell us your favorite one? Now you’ve returned temporarily to Fresno for “Arsenic.” Why?

A: It’s going to sound silly, but my favorite commercial that I’ve done was for a local chicken restaurant in San Diego. I got to work with a really talented crew that I had spent years fostering a relationship with, so in effect it was like collaborating with a bunch of friends. The spot was pretty technical with a green screen and some practical effects, but I also got to play a version of myself that I seldom get an opportunity to showcase. The commercial later went on to win three regional Emmy Awards — the first one that the director had ever received (he has since racked up six more). An honorable mention would be my Christmas Toyota commercial that tugs at the heartstrings.

In keeping with the theme of getting to show more of my range, I got a chance to play the villain in a gritty feature length film (“Saviors”) that was released in 2020 and a funny short film (“Con Boys”) with a very positive message in 2016 — both of which picked up several awards on the film festival circuit.

Coming back to Fresno to perform in “Arsenic” has definitely been an incredibly surreal experience. How many people can say they got the opportunity to return to the place where they got their start? Initially it was sort of a way for me to seek artistic fulfillment and continue my craft in the face of the ongoing Hollywood strikes, but it has since turned into an opportunity to hit the reset button and reconnect with the passion and love that I initially felt when I first graced that stage.

Q: Dan Pessano (managing director of GCP) was tickled that you returned for a show. But I swear that guy has a memory like a Macbook Pro. Did he really remember scolding you more than two decades ago for scratching some paint off a rail?

A: Yes, Dan still chastises me over that, but I maintain my innocence. I found that I often got blamed for the wrongdoings of the other more rambunctious children in the company. I would much rather he remember me as the kid who relentlessly pestered him with my impressions of Pee-Wee Herman backstage during “Babes In Toyland,” but Dan is definitely a powerhouse with a mind like a steel trap.

Q: I can imagine that you’re thankful for being able to act again after a health scare. Were you nervous going back on stage?

A: There’s always some level of nervousness whenever going to perform in front of a live audience. But, yes, after temporarily losing the ability to walk or form complete sentences (two somewhat essential things for acting) it definitely called a lot of things into question. Does my brain still work? Will it seize up again in the middle of the show? Strangely, the main source of anxiety is my concern for not disappointing the audience and the rest of the cast.

Having played the character of Mortimer in another production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” 15 years ago, that gave me a certain level of familiarity and confidence to set foot on a stage again. Thankfully I have been doing a lot of work over the years to restore and maintain my physical and mental health, so my previous health issues have not been a factor.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

Life is short, drink the wine. Come see the show and you’ll have a great time!

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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