“Ghost stories... tell us about things that lie hidden within all of us, and which lurk outside all around us. They show human beings in the grip of the extremes of powerful emotions, at key moments and turning points in their lives. They also frighten delightfully, give shape, form and substance to our darkest and most primitive and child-like fears and imaginings, and, perhaps most importantly of all, they entertain.”
Within the realm of storytelling, truer words may have never been spoken. This is especially true in the case of “The Woman In Black.” Originally written as a novel in 1983 by Susan Hill, the story was very quickly adapted to a stage play format by Stephen Mallatrat in 1987. Holding the record of being the second longest running play in the history of London’s West End, it has spread far and wide, striking both fear and wonder into the hearts of millions all around the world. On September 29, 2011, the Salem Theater Company (STC) in Salem, MA started performing their own production of the play, creating the perfect transition into the festivities that are usually celebrated in the city this time of year.
But what exactly is the play about? In the original novel by Hill, the story centers around Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor from London in the late 19th century. In the beginning of the story, Arthur is summoned to attend the funeral of the late Alice Drablow, a reclusive widow who resided in the small eastern town of Crythin Gifford. As Arthur sorts through the papers left behind at her estate, he begins to find a connection between the late Mrs. Drablow and the Woman in Black, a mysterious phantom who has haunted the town for several decades. The deeper Arthur delves into the long-hidden secrets concerning the ghastly figure however, the more the hauntings seem to be following him. What follows is an amazing and sincerely terrifying experience that is unlike anything most readers have ever seen.
As for the stage adaptation by Mallatrat, it remains faithful to Hill’s book, with one major difference. The play opens with an older Arthur reading from a manuscript of his story that he has evidently written himself in an attempt to share his tale with family and friends. Arthur has also hired a young actor to help him, but ends up being berated by him due to his poor delivery. After a heated argument, they agree to act out the story, with the actor playing a younger Kipps, and Arthur himself playing the roles of all the other characters he met, along with narrating the tale.
While the set changes from production to production, the play boils down to one thing: two men acting alone on a stage. A few chairs and chests act as “props” (which the actor and the older Arthur use gratuitously), with most of the story being carried by the character’s themselves. This holds especially true for the STC, which had perhaps the most simplistic set I’ve ever seen for the show. Don’t be alarmed however, for this isn’t a criticism of the production, but more of a commendation of the actors who are able to deliver a masterful, emotional, and terrifying performance with fantastic results.
Like many modern horror films, the first third of the play does move at an admittedly slow pace, although is still ripe with exposition important to the story. The play very quickly begins to pick up pace however, upon the first sighting of the Woman in Black herself. Throughout the rest of the play, every audience member is kept glued to the edge of their seat, never wanting to miss what may be another passing glimpse of the dark specter who takes to flitting across the edges of the stage. While the “play-within-a-play” style may seem cumbersome to some, it works perfectly in this play, allowing for an extra surprise by the end of it (don’t worry, no spoilers will be revealed).
What makes this play stand out from other productions that I’ve seen however, is the acting of David Allen George, who played the part of the older Arthur Kipps. As I said before, what the play is really about, is two men performing together on a stage, and George does an incredible job in making the production come to life in front of your eyes. Throughout the play, as they act out Kipps’ manuscript, he responds emotionally to many of the things that are being acted out. It is the power and believability of these outbursts that suspend disbelief and envelope you completely in the story. While the Actor, played by Allen Vietzke, also does a tremendous job, his emotions seem less complete. Although this may seem like a criticism, I think it speaks to his character; he is an actor by profession, and a good one at that, but he holds no personal connection to the story; that is, until the end.
Even for those who aren’t fans of the genre, “The Woman In Black” is an amazing horror story, and one that I always make a point of seeing whenever it is playing in the Greater Boston Area. Fans of the play, and horror stories in general, will be happy to know that a major motion picture of “The Woman In Black” is slated to come out February, 2012, starring Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame). Whether you see this production, or one performed elsewhere, or simply wait for the movie, I can guarantee a chilling and haunting tale of the likes that you have never seen before.
For those interested on other shows coming up soon at the STC, you can visit their website at: www.salemtheatre.com
“The intent of the show is to frighten - so if it doesn’t, it’s nothing. The fear is not on a visual or visceral level, but an imaginative one. There are no gouts of blood nor any but the simplest of special effects.”