Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Roger Mastroianni.
Arthur Kipps, the central character of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is invited to contribute to a circle of people telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. (Ghost stories, we are being told, are not just for Halloween.) Despite having a doozy of a tale to tell, he declines. The story he has is both real and terrifying, too far removed from the fantastic tales being spun by people who have never seen a real ghost. Kipps has, and the confrontation has changed his life in powerful ways.
The conceit of The Woman in Black, now playing at Royal George Theatre in director Robin Herford’s original West End staging, is that Kipps (Bradley Armacost), who has written down all of the particulars of his encounter, needs to tell his family and friends about it and hires an actor (Adam Wesley Brown) to help him tell it better. As The Actor becomes familiar with the story, though, he talks Kipps into playing it onstage instead of merely reciting it, and we watch the two of them rehearse their terrifying narrative. It’s a story that begins with the will of an old woman who has died in a haunted mansion in a remote part of England, an account that holds more than a few twists and surprises and, yes, scares, as a young lawyer heads out to deal with her personal papers.
Herford, who has directed incarnations of this play all around the world, is bringing his vision of the play to the US for the first time. He is using the same production team that introduced the play to the world almost thirty years ago: set designer Michael Holt, whose sparse set is responsible for some of those surprises; lighting designer Kevin Sleep, who does more here with extremely low light than you’d think possible; and sound designer Gareth Owen, whose effects are used by The Actor to tell the story without all of that cumbersome description. It’s a brilliant, streamlined production, and with two actors playing all of the roles it works stunningly well. It is also genuinely frightening.
Armacost helps set the tone for that. His Kipps is visibly nervous even to read his story, let alone play it out. It is clear that something has happened to scare the devil out of him. Still, as he slowly gets more into the performance, we see Armacost’s considerable ability to vanish into multiple characters through speech patterns, accents, and costumes. Brown does not have the number of roles to play that Armacost has, but he assays the one central role in the tale (Kipps himself) with aplomb. As the mystery rolls on and things become more and more scary, Brown-as-Kipps tries desperately first to rationalize and then to deal with what is increasingly obviously a specter. Brown is uncanny as the man going through this terror, especially in scenes that take place at night in the old mansion. Both actors are perfectly cast to present this haunting, haunted tale.
The Woman in Black is probably a perfect date play, but I noted several families with teens in the audience when I attended who seemed to be enjoying it tremendously. No matter who you are, this creepy story will frighten and entertain you in equal measures. No matter what time of year it is, a good ghost story is a good ghost story. And a great play is a great play.
Woman in Black is a Royal George Theatre production now playing at 1641 N. Halsted St, Chicago through Feb 17. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.