A charming little gem of a ghostly, campfire-ish thriller is here for a short time courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company. Full of expressive acting, whodunit lighting moods and suspense-making sound, The Woman in Black is a theatrically creepy yarn, especially for those folk wanting a respite from real-life unease.
Sure there are those who don’t want to get away from the real world. Or have always hated spooky, campfire stories powered by flashlights. Or haven’t seen found-footage movies like the now two-decade-old The Blair Witch Project, or heard other forms of “make-you-jump” entertainment such as the old-time radio classic Suspense. For them, no reason to read further.
But, for the rest of us, please read on. Then take yourself, together with a like-minded group, to the newly christened Michael R. Klein Theatre (formerly the Lansburgh) and have a ball.
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a literary work by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black is the unsettling story of a young lawyer who stumbles and lurches along to find himself in a near-the-moors, misty, cryptic English small town with a mysterious past, present, and perhaps future.
The town is full of forbidding secrets that the young lawyer discovers as he bumbles along through a spooky old home known as Eel Marsh House–the castle-like domicile of the now-deceased mature woman named Mrs. Drablow, a woman whose puzzling past life is slowly unraveled. The Woman in Black begins in a most unassuming manner. A mumbling, humble-appearing old gent named Mr. Kipps is reading from a large print book he holds in his trembling hands. Kipps (in a stage whisper “I am not an actor”) is interrupted by a younger man who offers the older Kipps assistance with the words that are stuck in his throat.
As The Woman in Black production settles in, it becomes a ghostly tale full of illusions, deftly told with the fine hand of veteran director Robin Herford. The expressive acting prowess of two actors–Robert Goodale as Arthur Kipps (and other characters) and Daniel Easton, known as “The Actor” (he also portrays the young Kipps)–is key to the production’s freshness and point-of-view. Each actor takes on several characters with abundant aplomb.
A number of other characters and spirits add to the show’s chills; a special dog named Spider, local townsfolk who fear venturing into the vacant Eel Marsh House (seen as dark silhouette images), horses (I swear I saw horses), and even a hovering spirit dressed all in black (Did my eyes fool me?). Does the audience see and know things the on-stage actors do not? The height of an audience member’s startled jumping from their theater seat will likely depend upon their mood of the moment.
There are some terrifically theatrical scenes throughout the production. The clip-clop of horses’ hooves and biting cold wind are still with me even hours later (Rod Mead, original sound designer, and Sebastian Frost, sound designer). A scene involving a hidden-away children’s nursery is chilling and can bring back memories of dark nights in the woods with only a small flashlight to pinpoint illuminate objects and such (Michael Holt, imaginative set and costume designer; Kevin Sleep, lighting designer). Yikes.
But no more details. Don’t want to ruin it for you.
With its quick-paced two acts through about ten short scenes (often set off with the snap of the fingers) The Woman in Black is a gentle, hand-to-the-throat, tidy little startle-one from-their-seat yarn. Sure, the play’s setup may not be in some universe far, far away, or have the most contemporary political or cultural outlook. So what? The Woman in Black is a theatrically artful, enjoyable evening. It is full of atmosphere, illusion, and some cute terrors. It begins innocently enough, but then slowly, but ever so surely, can grip the throat of willing participants who masqueraded as the audience. Do take it in. Bring friends and family with you.
Running Time: About 2 hours with one intermission.
The Woman in Black plays through December 22, 2019, at the Michael R. Klein Theatre (formerly the Lansburgh) – 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-547-1122 or go online.
Notes: Harmless stage smoke and sudden, loud sound effects are used in this production.
The two-actor The Lady in Black is presented by PW Productions. The play had its debut in the United Kingdom in 1987 and later moved to London’s West End. The Woman in Black is the West End’s second-longest-running play after The Mousetrap, which ran from 1952 to 2012. This year, The Woman in Black celebrated its 30th anniversary at the Fortune Theatre in London.
STC’s Colleen Kennedy provides details behind the “why” for a haunted holiday season story in England and now America in the always enjoyable STC ASIDES.