Royal George(Mainstage)

  Woman in Black, The

    At the Royal George Theatre  (Main Stage)

 By Dan Zeff

Chicago—It’s only when a still quivering audience leaves the Royal George Theatre that it might realize that “The Woman in Black,” a play that just scared the hell out of them had no violence. Not a drop of blood was spilled and neither of the main characters,  was even injured at all, at least not physically. But the viewer’s nerve ends still took a constant beating.

“The Woman in Black” has been running in London for 30 years and a production is on a North American tour with a three-month stop at the Royal George. Most of the great ghost stories in literature, movies, and the theater were born in England. “The Woman in Black” began as a novel by the English author Susan Hill and was adapted into a megahit international thriller by English playwright Stephen Mallatratt.

Cleveland Play House
The Woman in Black
Susan Hill
Photo by Roger Mastroianni

The story is set mostly in a remote English village filled with superstitious local residents. There is a secret that nobody wants to talk about. The atmosphere is drenched with mists and howling winds and a musty old mansion that conceals who knows what horrors rooted in the past.

The play starts innocently enough with an elderly man named Arthur Kipps standing on a shabby stage reading haltingly from a manuscript he has composed. It turns out to be his record of horrific events much earlier in his life that he wants to exorcise so he can finally sleep at night.

Kipps has brought the manuscript to a young man known only as the Actor. Kipps wants mentoring from the Actor so he can perform the manuscript in a live theater. The Actor at first is skeptical but soon decides that Kipps can best tell his story by turning his manuscript into a play that the two men will perform in that dingy theater. From that time on, “The Woman in Black” shifts back and forth from the present to the earlier time with the Actor playing Kipps as a young man and the senior citizen Kipps assuming a variety of flavorful minor character roles. So with that skeleton of the story now in place, away we go!

The young Kipps goes to the isolated village to wind up the legal affairs of a recently deceased client, Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House (both suitably creepy names). Young Arthur notices a mysterious woman clad only in black at the Drablow funeral—“A young woman with a wasted face, the skin stretched over her bones.” Eventually Arthur learns a tragic story how her sister got pregnant out of wedlock, was scorned by the narrow-minded villagers, and forced to give up her baby.

Kipps decides to stay overnight in the Drablow house—“damp, clinging, cobwebby, fine and impenetrable.”  Anyone with half a brain would recognize that staying alone in that grim edifice is asking for trouble, probably of a supernatural nature. And sure enough, there are strange noises, spooky shadows, and a dense fog that seems to cut Arthur off from the rest of the world. And then there is that locked room that tempts Kipps to enter, while the audience silently hopes he keeps his away from that doorknob.

Within a half hour the play has the audience by the throat. The spectators sit breathless, waiting for who knows what to send screams through the crowd. There are at least a half dozen genuine frights in the show, some visual some auditory, some in the imaginations of the viewers by now subtly manipulated to expect the worst, and very suddenly.

All the scary moments are created, not in an obvious way with blood and violence, but with suggestion built on atmospheric lighting, brilliantly descriptive language, and those noises that go bump in the dark. To achieve the necessary tension, and sustain it, requires the collaboration of a sensitive director, two versatile and nuanced actors, and a group of designers–all present in the Royal George production.

Robin Herford directed the original 1989 staging in England and has made a career of restaging the show throughout the world, including the Chicago version. Herford pulls all the right strings, building the suspense and never letting the spectator off the emotional hook until the cast takes its final bows.

The senior member of the ensemble is Chicago theater veteran Bradley Armacost, who has given local audiences memorable performances, especially in character roles, for decades. Armacost’s fretful older Arthur perfectly plays against Adam Wesley Brown’s skeptical Actor, who continually insists he doesn’t believe in ghosts, until his experiences in and around the old house start to unravel his emotions.

Michael Holt (scenic design), Kevin Sleep (lighting design) and Gareth Owen (sound design) and their associates create the haunted and sinister world that keep the audience on the edge of their seats, apprehensively waiting for something frightening and unexpected to come at them.

While the play is going on, the viewer doesn’t question what is happening to Kipps and why. After the show is over and the viewers are safely out of the theater, there may be a temptation to reevaluate the logic of the storyline and the tangled relationships among characters long dead, or supposedly so. But even people geared up to expect thrills and chills will repeatedly get caught off guard in all the intensity and tension. Even the most resistant spectator, after jumping at every light that suddenly penetrates the dark and wondering about that rhythmic pounding noise on the second floor, will be reduced to shuddering.

In the end, it’s not a crazed Freddie Krueger figure slashing that makes “The Woman in Black” so gloriously chilling, but the power of the unseen, the barely seen, and the aura of menace we think we understand, but maybe not. The tension is palpable and beautifully paced. This kind of theater outwardly may seem trivial and melodramatic, but it’s an art form, especially when it is as literate and riveting as the Hill-Mallatratt fright machine. All in all, very scary and great fun.

The show gets a rating of

“The Woman in Black” runs through February 17 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $49 to $69. Call 312 988 9000 or visit: www.theroyalgeorge


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