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‘The Woman in Black’ at Cleveland Play House: Buy a ticket if you dare (review)

September 26, 2018

‘The Woman in Black’ at Cleveland Play House: Buy a ticket if you dare (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – As with all good ghost stories, “The Woman in Black” takes its time scaring you. This is no philistine haunted-house entertainment.

It doesn’t run at you from the moment it begins, meat clever held high. It creeps up on you, invading your bones like a damp chill.

Tension builds, scene by scene, with fiendish, patient precision. And when the tale hits its frightening stride, even the most innocuous sound takes on horrifying significance – in this case, the sweet, tinny tune played by a child’s music box.

How can such a thing make me want to run from the theater into the blessed light of the lobby? That’s the magic at work in this genuinely hair-raising production of the British scarefest at Cleveland Play House.

The play has been chilling the blood of Englishmen, women, children and tourists for nearly three decades on London’s West End, where it opened in 1989 under the diabolical direction of Robin Herford. He directs the Cleveland production, too, which is why this version – one that will be taken on the road for the first U.S. tour – is so delightfully unsettling.

The action begins benignly enough: Arthur Kipps (Bradley Armacost, his very mustache seeming to droop with sorrow) stands on a nearly bare stage and reads from a manuscript he’s written. It’s as transporting as a dissertation on asphalt.

“This is intended to be of interest, I take it?” asks a voice from the audience. An actor (a thoroughly engaging Adam Wesley Brown) has been watching the paint-dying spectacle. He emerges from the body of the theater and approaches Kipps.

(Caveat emptor: This will not be the last figure to materialize from the shadows of the orchestra seats, one of the production’s many low-tech effects designed to positively creep you out.)

“Why yes, of course,” answers Kipps.

“Then why announce it as if it were the fatstock prices?”

Kipps has employed the actor to help him hone his oratory skills. Something unspeakably terrifying happened to Kipps years earlier, something he has never told anyone. Can the actor find a way to help him explain the unbelievable saga to his family?

This is no game. He needs to tell his story, “so that I may sleep without nightmares,” he tells the actor.

The eager thespian, full of brio and encouragement, has an idea. He’ll turn Kipps’ account into a play that the two will perform in the old, empty theater with a patched curtain and a roof that leaks.

“We’ll make an Olivier of you yet,” he promises Kipps. And, miraculously, as the play progresses, so do Kipps’ dramatic talents. Part of the fun of the piece is watching him go from wooden to a man of a thousand accents and affects (give or take) as he assumes the roles of everyone he met in his own disturbing narrative.

The actor casts himself as Kipps as he once was – a young lawyer, newly in love and dispatched to a remote village in England to clean up the affairs of a client who has recently died: one Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House.

Like J.K. Rowling, Susan Hill, the author upon whose 1983 novel the play is based, knows how to perfectly describe the qualities of her characters and places with the names she gives them. “Drablow” and “Eel Marsh” are designed to fill us with dread – deservedly so, it turns out.

The very mention of the surname “Drablow” strikes fear in the hearts of the townspeople the barrister meets; few dare attend her funeral, save Kipps, his contact in the village a mysterious figure clad in black . . . “A young woman with a wasted face, the skin stretched over her bones.”

The little burg is haunted by that figure and the tragedy she represents – one that involves a woman punished for offending the sexual mores of the time, a stolen child, a terrible accident and a mother’s vengeance.

More than anything, “The Woman in Black” is a celebration of live theater and the power of a well-told tale to transport us anywhere.

This falls to the performers, using Hill’s evocative, sensory language – the sea-mist swirling near Mrs. Drablow’s imposing manse is “damp, clinging, cobwebby, fine and impenetrable” – a minimum number of props and effects and precious little scenery.

When the young Kipps decides, unadvisedly, to stay the night at the Drablow estate to go through her mounds of paperwork, he takes a dog called Spider, lent to him by a man in town, along for company.

The animal is brought to pantomimed life by the actors, which seemed comic until a scene where Spider is put in sudden jeopardy, and I found myself worrying about her safety, completely invested in what happened to an invisible pooch.

That these simple techniques transport us so effectively is a testament to the skill of the cast and crew and to the credo of Thornton Wilder.

“Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind – not in things, not in ‘scenery,’ ” Wilder explained in the preface to “Our Town.”

“Moliere said that for the theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two.” The climax of “Our Town,” wrote Wilder, “needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

The same is true of this play, the biggest surprise of which isn’t that it spooks us, but that it also has the power to break our hearts.

The actor and Kipps don’t know it, but the closer they come to the climax of their own production, the greater the danger that the bright line between real life and artifice will blur. To divulge any more would be pure theatrical heresy.

Like all good ghost stories, “The Woman in Black” follows you long after you leave the theater, up the stairs and into your bedroom, crouching in the dark corners of your imagination, waiting for the just right moment to spring.

REVIEW

The Woman in Black

What: The Cleveland Play House launches the North American tour of “Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.” Adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt. Directed by Robin Herford.

When: Through Sunday, Oct. 7.

Where: Allen Theatre, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $25-$95; $15 tickets for currently enrolled students under the age of 25 with valid ID. Go to clevelandplayhouse.com or call 216-400-7096.

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes (including intermission).

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