In Victorian London, an old man named Arthur Kipps is haunted by his past. So he hires a young actor to help him re-enact and thereby “exorcise” the horrific supernatural experiences he endured as a young solicitor, when he visited the English countryside to attend a client’s funeral. Kipps is no performer, though, so the two wind up switching roles, and as the young actor moves through Kipps’ story, he, too, finds himself feeling a bit haunted.
“The Woman in Black” is based on the 1983 novel by Susan Hill — the same novel on which the 2012 film of the same name starring Daniel Radcliffe is based — and Stephen Mallatratt’s 1987 adaptation is the second longest-running play on the London stage. The frame story of Arthur Kipps as an old man working with an actor is Mallatratt’s addition to the story. This second dimension means that the story becomes less a ghost story than a piece of metatheater, constantly commenting on the medium itself.
Swift Creek Mill’s production capitalizes on this, opening with a dark stage but for a single, bright bulb in the center — a ghost light, in theater speak — and director Tom Width’s introduction, which calls to mind the old stories about ghosts in the playhouse (including an alleged few in the basement at Swift Creek Mill.) The connections between theater and ghosts are made explicit, and the audience is asked to suspend disbelief for the story to come, which will not only include ghosts and other supernatural experiences, but a dog that isn’t there and a landscape we can’t see.
It’s kind of a cool premise. The result is, unfortunately, quite boring and not very scary. So goes playwriting that does a lot of telling and not enough showing, so that nothing, not even Width’s capable direction or the valiant performances by both Bill Blair (Kipps) and Matt Hackman (the Actor), could possibly save it from this. Scenes drag on for too long, and nothing feels quite as eerie as it should. The audience on opening night thinned out after the intermission.
The technical aspects of this production are its strongest. Width’s scenic design looks deceptively simple, with just a wooden frame and a few wooden boxes. It looks just like the empty theater in which the frame story takes place. But there is more than meets the eye. Joe Doran’s lighting design and Paul Deiss’ sound effects transform the stage into a variety of settings, and Width’s special effects are impressive and surprising, but not frightening.
This play isn’t scary, and it relies on a lot of direct storytelling which means it can feel tiresome. However, it does succeed in some respects. For what it’s worth, on opening night, during a scene where the invisible dog nearly came to an untimely end, I heard a quiet, shaken voice in the audience imploring, “Is she OK?” So while the ghosts around here aren’t scaring anyone, theatrical illusion is clearly alive and well. S
“The Woman in Black” runs until Oct. 21. Tickets cost $41.95. swiftcreekmill.com.