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Making Waves : A troupe of veteran actors performs "Arsenic and Old Lace" as a radio play to benefit the homeless.


The play, first performed in 1940, revolves around insane characters in an unstable world, which director Peggy Webber finds just as relevant a half-century later.

"There was a kind of hysteria in people's consciences back then," said Webber, who will direct a reading of "Arsenic and Old Lace" Sunday at Temple Judea in Tarzana as a benefit for the Valley Mayors' Fund for the Homeless. The all-volunteer organization of elected and honorary mayors has raised $200,000 for local shelters and homeless agencies since it was established in 1983.

"We're in the same position now in this country, not quite knowing what's coming up. We need to laugh at ourselves and society, and that's why this play is perfect," Webber said.

Webber runs the California Artists' Radio Theater, an ensemble of veteran actors from radio, television, film and theater. Every two months since 1988, the group, which includes members of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater from the 1930s, records a play broadcast Sunday nights for the American Public Radio Network on KPCC-FM (89.3) in Pasadena. The group performs at recording studios, in front of audiences at the station, or at other venues when it gives benefits. "Arsenic and Old Lace," will air from 5 to 6:30 p.m. the following Sunday.

In recent years, CART, which has about 100 members, has performed "Macbeth," "Twelfth Night," "The Front Page" and segments of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses."

By picking "Arsenic and Old Lace," Webber has found highly regarded parts for actors she has known for decades.

"The show calls for a number of senior citizens," Webber said. "Some of these people I've admired for 40 or 50 years."

Webber, who has acted in such network television shows as "Dragnet" and "The Saint," started a television anthology show in 1948 for KFI-TV in Los Angeles. Four actors from that original contingent--Parley Baer, Jeanette Nolan, Kathleen Freeman and Dan O'Herlihy--will appear in "Arsenic and Old Lace."

Many CART members have spent much of their careers in radio. Baer has appeared in more than 15,000 network radio shows; Les Tremayne was the lead on the "First Nighter Program" for 10 years, which was one of radio's earliest dramatic playhouses; and Nolan starred on radio shows in the 1930s. She also played Lady Macbeth in Welles' 1948 film, "Macbeth."

The actors enjoy reminiscing about the golden days of radio and bemoan the state of the entertainment business today.

"In radio, the listeners had to work by imagining things," said Marvin Kaplan, who was a regular on the CBS-TV series "Alice" from 1978-85 and is president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. "Now everything is a massage. You lay back and it all comes to you."

Yet CART members claim they don't dwell on nostalgia, that each works frequently in film, television and theater. Webber said they are paid scale for the CART readings.

"Acting is 'right now' for us," Freeman said. "We're always doing new things. This is not a reunion."

Where and When What: "Arsenic and Old Lace" Location: Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. Hours: 3 p.m. Sunday. Price: $25 to $75. Call: (818) 784-4297. Air date: 5 to 6:30 p.m. March 28 on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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