Story: Elderly solicitor Mr. Kipps has rented a theater to read a biographical story about his encounter with a deadly specter decades before. His delivery, though, leaves much to be desired, something a young actor at the theater repeatedly observes in rather brusque fashion.
It soon becomes apparent to the actor and eventually to Kipps that the way to tell his Victorian tale is to have the actor portray the younger Kipps, with the solicitor himself essaying the smaller roles of others in his creepy tale. So it is that the empty theater becomes the setting for Kipps’ yarn about his encounter with a ghastly, emaciated figure when he is sent by his London firm to handle the final details of a reclusive client in a remote village in England.
The specter, referred to by the villagers as “The Woman in Black,” strikes terror in the hearts of any who see her. Kipps was left emotionally scarred by the presence of that unsettling apparition many years earlier, and hopes that by telling the story he can exorcise his demons and find a remnant of peace. It sounds like a good plan, but will it work?
Highlights: Author Susan Hill wrote this gripping ghost story as a Gothic novel in 1983, which was then adapted by Stephen Mallatratt into a play that opened in London in 1989. Now in its 25th year, it’s the second-longest-running non-musical in the West End, exceeded only by Agatha Christie’s whodunit, The Mousetrap.
It’s a fitting addition to Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s current season, which the troupe has proclaimed to be “The Season of the Monster.” Thanks to convincing performances by B. Weller as the haunted lawyer and Jared Sanz-Agero as the energetic actor, along with taut direction by Rachel Tibbetts, The Woman in Black is a properly spooky addition to the fall theatrical calendar.
Other Info: Another major contributor to the success of this effort is sound designer Ellie Schwetye. She fills the cozy theater at The Chapel with a variety of noises and sounds that eerily evoke the Gothic atmosphere which Mallatratt expertly describes. A rocking chair, a dog’s comforting bark, the unsettling splash of marsh water, a horse’s shoes clattering on a carriage journey all convey a chilling sense of time and place.
Bess Moynihan adds her own detailed touches with the lighting and scenic designs. The set is filled with furniture draped in sheets to indicate an abandoned home, along with a desk at upper stage left where Weller plays a fastidious clerk in the law firm where young Kipps is employed, as well as a trunk which the actor fashions into a ‘pony and trap,’ courtesy of the audience’s imagination. Moynihan’s judicious degrees of lighting accentuate the ghostly effects as well.
Both men are outfitted in fine Victorian-era attire, courtesy of costume designer Elizabeth Henning, while Weller displays an impressive array of accents thanks to dialect coach Pamela Reckamp.
Those technical elements provide ballast for the finely etched portrayals by the two performers. Weller deftly moves between a number of roles, including the stoic, elder Kipps, a kindly land-owner who takes a liking to the young solicitor, a nervous chap who welcomes young Kipps to the village and a taciturn carriage driver, each of which adds to the atmosphere.
Sanz-Agero instills the actor with plenty of bravado and bluster while also portraying the younger Kipps in increasingly terrorized fashion. The work’s two acts move at a crisp and chilling pace thanks to Tibbetts’ carefully calibrated direction. Shelby Partridge contributes to the ethereal mood of the piece as the mute but ominous title character.
Halloween may be over, but you’ll likely have a ripping good time hearing -- and seeing -- what goes bump in the night with The Woman in Black.
Play: The Woman in Black
Company: Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
Venue: The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive
Dates: November 6, 7, 8, 9
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Joey Rumpell of RumZoo Photography