For a show that’s been running in the West End since 1987, the late Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of “The Woman in Black” feels surprisingly of these times. At least in some ways. The play itself is the opposite of cutting-edge, deriving much of its charm from being forthrightly old-fashioned: Just two men rehearsing in an empty, turn-of-the-century London theater. Much like it’s source material, Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name, Mallatratt’s “The Woman in Black” is an immensely pleasurable exercise in Gothic cosplay.
‘The Woman in Black’
When: Through Feb. 17
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted
Run time: 2 hours, including one intermission
No, the play feels of these times not for any reasons of style, but because it’s scary as hell. Horror’s been having a moment for, well, for quite a few moments at this point. Scary stories are proliferating like poltergeists across pretty much all forms of media, theater included. Every year, the pre-Halloween theater season in town offers more horror-based shows than the one before.
And yet, “The Woman in Black,” got there first. By a lot. And this U.S. premiere of the original production pairs director Robin Herford’s brilliant staging with two knockout Chicago actors, Bradley Armacost and Adam Wesley Brown, who absolutely light up the Royal George Theatre’s long dormant main stage. At least when the show isn’t plunging them and the audience into total darkness, that is.
But as great as Brown and Armacost are, it must be said that the play’s real star is Kevin Sleep’s cinematic lighting design. It’s rare to see a show that so effectively controls the audience’s point of focus, employing shadow and light like a master stage magician. Whether it’s jump scares or slowly building dread, “The Woman in Black” delivers.
The play also functions, funnily enough, as a kind of Theater 101 course. Mallatratt takes the novel’s framing device (the narrator’s family telling ghost stories) and adds a second device on top of it: Having written down his terrifying tale, the story’s narrator, aging London solicitor Arthur Kipps (Armacost), is now seeking help in presenting it. To this end, he’s hired an unnamed young actor (Brown) to give him some lessons in public speaking.
Unfortunately for Arthur, he’s really quite bad at it, so the actor hatches a plan. They will turn Arthur’s story of the eerie, isolated Eel Marsh House and the malevolent ghost that haunts its grounds into a play. (If only “let’s put on a play” worked as a solution in real life as often as it does in plays themselves.) The actor will play the part of a young Arthur, while Arthur will play … pretty much everyone else. As the rehearsals move forward, and Arthur becomes a more assured performer, his his tale takes hold and the frame melts (mostly) into the background.
The young Kipp’s journey takes him from foggy London to the equally foggy marshes of Northern England where he’s been sent to handle the will of the recently deceased widow Mrs. Drablow. Arthur quickly sniffs out that something is amiss with the locals, who are all terrified of Drablow’s secluded home, Eel Marsh House. Not only that, but he appears to be the only who notices the constant figure of a pale, sickly woman dressed in black — whom the show conjures up using such an utterly simple effect that it’s almost galling. In the proud tradition of dunderheaded horror protagonists, Arthur then decides to spend the night in Eel Marsh House so that he may better focus on his work. You can imagine how that goes for him.
“Have sympathy for your audience,” the actor rails at Arthur throughout the show’s opening scene, and “The Woman in Black” wisely follows its own advice — albeit with the slightly sadistic streak found in any good scaremonger. The play makes great hay early on from the fact that the two men have barely any props or set pieces at their disposal, which the actor waves away with claims that they’ll simply engage the audience’s imaginations instead. Lo and behold: With little more than a few costume pieces, some chairs, and a large wicker hamper, “The Woman in Black” is able to weave a delicate web of illusion — although that spectacular lighting and a few offstage fog machines do some heavy lifting too.
Here’s wishing the production a future of packed Chicago houses, not for the sake of the show, but for the audience members themselves, as scary stories are always more fun with a crowd. Oh, and if you’re wondering just how they manage to pull off the terrifying woman in black herself … the scariest horrors are almost always the unknowns. Let’s keep it that way.
Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.