Old hand in ‘Old Lace’: Longtime acting teacher Margaret Johnson in familiar production

Old hand in ‘Old Lace’: Longtime acting teacher Margaret Johnson in familiar production

Jay Pyette

March 25, 2011, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian

When Margaret Johnson takes the stage as a leading lady in Montana Actors’ Theatre’s upcoming production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” nobody needs to remind her to “break a leg.” After all, the legendary local acting teacher who led students at Sentinel High School in dozens of plays over her 37-year career – including three different productions of “Arsenic and Old Lace” – has plenty of stage experience on which to draw.

And besides, she’s already got enough fractures in her life, thank you very much.

Two weeks ago, just as the production was reaching its final stages of preparation, Johnson fell and broke her right shoulder. The accident, which has left Johnson performing her role in a sling, is the latest of several table-turning twists on the way to bringing Joseph Kesselring’s American classic to the stage of the Crystal Theatre.

Harkening back to one of her school productions, in which the lead actor broke his leg two days before opening night, Johnson laughed, “I guess what comes around, goes around.”

Indeed, it does – and especially in this production, which features Johnson co-starring alongside one of her former students, Alicia Bullock-Muth, under the direction of yet another of her past students, Reid Reimers.

It’s an experience that has energized the always-energetic septuagenarian actress, even before opening night arrives.

“It makes me so proud to see that these kids are doing such good work,” said Johnson. “It’s a joy to work with Alicia; she’s just a bundle of energy. I don’t know where she gets it. … Reid has really found his niche. He knows exactly what he wants, and he knows how to get it; he’s definitely an actor’s director. I would do any show with him as a director.”

Since retiring from teaching in 2000, Johnson has done her fair share of shows as an actress, appearing in productions at MCT that include “Oklahoma,” “Seussical” and, most recently, “White Christmas.”

But even among those popular titles, “Arsenic and Old Lace” holds a special place for her.

“It’s a script with a lot of meat, and a lot of heart,” said Johnson, who plays the role of Martha – “a part that I think any lady my age would love to play.”

The darkly comedic tale revolves around the unorthodox measures that Martha and her sister, Abby (played by Bullock-Muth), take in the name of “charity” toward a series of lonely old bachelors: Believing the men to be lonely beyond salvation, the women have been poisoning them with wine spiked with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide. The whole thing is found out by their nephew, a drama critic by the name of Mortimer Brewster, who sets about trying to right the wrongs of his family, which also includes a nutty uncle who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt; and Mortimer’s brother, Jonathan, whose murderous ways are far less benevolently motivated.

Johnson said that, despite the macabre story, “Arsenic and Old Lace” has endured due to its underlying spirit of love and charity.

“These two ladies, they really care about everybody around them, and they do what they can to help out,” said Johnson. “It’s true that their view of the world is a little different than most people – to say the least – but they really do care. In a very bizarre way, it’s a very sweet story about love, and I think that’s why it continues to be a play that people love to attend and produce.”

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