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The darkness that frequently envelopes the Church Street Theatre during The Woman in Black is, or at least seems, total. It’s not the 75 percent grayscale dark you usually get in a theatrical blackout. It’s ink. You can’t help but search it, waiting for those splotchy pixels of the void to resolve themselves into something familiar or at least identifiable. Your eyes exhaust themselves, flicking around, looking into nothing for nothing. The playmakers will show you something in their own good time, and you’ll fall for it, too. Terror breeds credulity.
Some theater aims to enlighten you or to provoke you. In dire cases, it wants to educate you. The Woman in Black—-the second-longest-lived nonmusical in West End history, frightening tourists nightly since 1989—-will raise your awareness of nothing more than your own elevated heart rate. It only wants to scare you out of your breeches, to make you see dead people, to make you be afraid, be very afraid. In this honorable mission, Keegan Theatre’s expertly designed and performed production is an unequivocal success.
The contours of the tale are as in Susan Hill’s 1983 novel: A young junior solicitor named Arthur Kipps is dispatched from London to the remote coastal village of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of one of his firm’s clients and then sort the documents she left behind in her creepy old house. The house is even more isolated than the town, situated on a fog-choked marsh that gets cut off from the mainland at high tide. (If Kipps had read Dracula—-published in 1897, so it would’ve been contemporary fiction when The Woman in Black takes place—-he might’ve noted the similarity between his task and poor Jonathan Harker’s, and been moved to seek gainful employment elsewhere.)
To Hill’s scenario, adapter Stephen Mallatrat has added a framing device: The aged Kipps has hired a 30ish-year-old actor to help him rehearse his telling of the frightening events that befell him decades earlier. He intends to share his tale with an intimate audience of family and friends. This part didn’t make any sense to me. Kipps doesn’t seem the sort to seek attention, as he protests to his coach repeatedly, or indeed, to want to revisit his memory of these tragic events for any reason. Still, the device keeps the play from being a solo piece, so I was grateful for it. Besides, Mallatrat’s contrivance to have the actor assume the role of young Kipps while old Kipps plays all—-well, almost all—-the other characters he encounters on his visit to Crythin Gifford is inspired.
The cast that directors Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith (who also designed the creaky, atmospheric split-level set) have assembled is inspired, too. Matthew Keenan plays the actor and Young Kipps; in the roles of Old Kipps and the various townspeople is Robert Leembruggen. Keenan pivots easily among his dual roles. As the actor instructing Old Kipps, he seems like a patient if disbelieving teacher; as Young Kipps, his pendulum swing from earnest confidence to humble terror is persuasive. Leembruggen’s stocky body is somehow expressive even when he’s just standing there, his broad, ruddy face looking sorrowful and haunted. Because truly superb acting doesn’t look like acting, it’s difficult to describe. But here it is.
Also deserving of special mention is sound designer Tony Angelini. Several key scenes turn on Kipps’ inability to see what’s happening around him, others on our blindness. Angelini triggers the projector in your mind. It helps, of course, that the story he’s helping to tell calls for so many basic, easily recognized cues: Bustling city streets, singing birds, a steam train, horses’ hooves, the terrified screams of drowning children. The usual.
There are others whose efforts are key to making The Woman in Black as mercilessly entertaining as it is, and unfortunately, the circumstances of the show don’t permit them to be named. But if a theater artist lives for the audience’s immediate, visceral response, then their contributions will be richly rewarded. The Woman in Black will turn your hair white. If’s already white, it’ll make it fall out. If you’re already bald, it will engender some nonfollicular symptom of fright. It’s an equal-opportunity chiller.
The Woman in Black runs at Keegan Theatre through November 30.