Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, The Woman In Black, is a pretty exemplary horror tale done in the old-fashioned gothic style, replete with family secrets and earnest lawyers navigating rough terrain and insular townsfolk to face a supernatural menace shut away in a crumbling old building. A more or less instant success, it’s been adapted to the screen twice (once quite recently, with actor Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role) and has given audiences thrills on stage in London’s West End for nearly 30 years. (The second longest-running show in the UK.) And you can catch what’s left of its run at the Pasadena Playhouse now through November 11, 2018. “So,” you wonder… “Should I?”
Of course you should! You read Creepy LA and you want some chills when you go to the theater. And these you shall have!
“The Woman In Black” is a two-actor (well, in a manner of speaking), two-act play with a very flexible, quasi-minimalist production design. We join two people — the aging Arthur Kipps (Bradley Armacost, displaying a wicked sense of both understated comedy and uncanny drama) and The Actor (Adam Wesley Brown, who brings wonderful energy and vulnerability to his performance) — as The Actor attempts to coach Mr. Kipps through his presentation of a most unusual narrative. It seems Mr. Kipps wants to tell a group of people about a bizarre and terrifying set of events he was enmeshed in many years ago, and to explain how his life was forever shattered. They begin to take on multiple roles, especially The Actor as the young Mr. Kipps, as they condense and bring to life the horrifying things that happened at the old house in Eel’s Marsh after its owner died, and after Arthur Kipps was sent to settle her estate. Things take an even more ominous tone as the titular personage — The Woman In Black — proves to be a fearsome presence that cannot easily be confined to mere stories.
A production with such intimacy in terms of cast size and production logistics can only really be built on a solid script and actors who know how to command a stage. “Woman” has both. Despite, or perhaps because of, its superficial resemblance to Stoker’s Dracula and other 19th century Gothic Horror fiction, there is a pleasant touch of the familiar in the scenario that only helps it hit its mark. The real surprises in the story lie in its staging, because this is a play that is not afraid to borrow from cinema and has legitimate jump scares. (They got me!) Proving that even if you wrap a story in peasoup fog, gaslight and bombazine, there’s still fear to be mined in the audience’s nerves.
Armacost and Brown, of course, have their own familiarity, but it’s of a different sort. They keep the material fresh, but they have an unmistakable rhythm and synergy that shows they’ve toured with the material and have a firm grasp on what note belongs where. They make it look easy, and that tends to be very difficult.
There isn’t much time left, so don’t miss “The Woman In Black” at the Pasadena Playhouse. And if you know someone who jumps at horror movies and live action haunted houses… bring them along. Tell them it’s just a nice, quiet play about a gentle ghost story…