Review: “The Woman in Black”

Adam Wesley Brown (The Actor) (left to right) with Director Robin Herford and Bradley Armacos (Photo by Arthur Kipps)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Royal George Theatre,
1641 N. Halsted St.
When: through Feb. 17, 2019
Tickets: $49-$69
Phone: 312-988-9000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you like ghost stories that are scary enough to make you gasp, “The Woman in Black” at the Royal George Theatre is the show for you.

Helmed by the original director, Robin Herford, the play is based on Susan Hill’s 1983 Gothic novel, which was adapted for the stage in 1987 by Stephen Mallstratt and first produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, U. K. This is the first American tour of that staging, which moved to London’s West End in January 1989 and is still playing there after three decades.

More than anything else, “Woman” is a tribute to the magic of theater and power of the audience’s  imagination. Unlike the novel, the chilling drama is framed as a play-within-a-play, and two actors take all the parts—except that of the ghoulish ghost.

At the outset, Bradley Armacost is Arthur Kipps, an elderly solicitor we initially see reading from a manuscript he’s written about a terrifying experience he had when he was younger. He hopes to dispel  its effects by recreating it for family and friends and has hired the young Actor, portrayed by Adam Wesley Brown, to help.

They are in an empty theater, and in a setup that’s frankly too long and rather tedious, the impatient Actor tries to get Kipps to inject more color and emotion into his account. Finally the Actor decides that they should reenact it with him playing the young Kipps, and the older Kipps, aka Armacost, playing all the other roles.

The tale gets underway when young Kipps is sent to Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral and sort through the papers of an elderly client, the reclusive widow, Mrs. Drablow. She lived at Eel Marsh House, a manse across a causeway through a foggy marsh that’s only accessible at low tide. Most of Kipps’ misadventure takes place there, including in the cemetery out back and a child’s playroom behind a door that’s always locked, until it isn’t.

While it’s natural to wonder why Kipps didn’t have the papers sent back to London rather than choosing to stay in a house that was obviously haunted, it’s easy to get caught up in the mystery behind the emaciated specter he initially sees at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral. Brown is convincing as the fairly intrepid but increasingly frightened young man, and Armacost brings the people he meets distinctly to  life, starting on the train with landowner, Samuel Daily, who later lends Kipps his dog, Spider, to keep him company. Among the others are Horatio Jerome, the local man enlisted to help him but too scared to do much, and Keckwick, the villager who drives him across the causeway in an old-fashioned pony and trap.

The stunningly spooky staging, created before the age of digital everything, augments the fine acting and careful direction. The 1987 designers—Michael Holt (design), Kevin Sleep (lights), Rod Mead (sound) – are credited in the program, along with sound designer Gareth Owen, associate set and lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia, associate sound designer Ray Nardelli, and associate costume designer Clare McKellaston.  The roiling fog, the shadows and revealing bursts of light in the dark night, the unexpected noises like the crack of lightening or rhythmic sound of an empty rocking chair are what keep us on our toes and cause squeals of fright for two-plus hours.

Like many a good ghost story, “The Woman in Black” comes with a catch about the ghost herself. It would be churlish to reveal it, so let’s just say, it deeply distressed the Actor and may make you wonder.