Theater review: The Woman in Black offers subtle scares 

Ghosts in the playhouse

We’re a generation that loves to be scared, as is evident in the bustling industry of horror today. The Walking Dead. American Horror Story. Dozens of new demon flicks in the theaters each year.  

If you’re among the many who love this stuff, then please: get thee to the Woolfe Street Playhouse to see the Village Repertory’s show, The Woman In Black. Running this weekend and next, with a special encore presentation on Halloween, The Woman in Black will feed your need for things that go bump in the night.

The play takes viewers to a London of old, where a solicitor named Arthur Kipps has a story of terror in the British countryside to share. There’s an oddly meta play-within-a-play dynamic, but it works, framing the chilling tale and suspending the audience’s disbelief from the get-go. The play opens with Kipps learning his lines. He’s no performer, he says over and again, though his companion and helper, called only “The Actor” in the playbill, promises to help.

For, you see, Kipps has encountered a ghost, and not just any ghost. She’s a terrifying woman in black, with a wan, wasted face and a thirst for revenge.

Kipps, played by Evan Parry, doesn’t want to share his story — he needs to. It may be the only way to set his soul to rest. The actor, played by Young Stowe, wants only to help him tell the story well. Together, they set out to rehash the haunted past, with disastrous results.

Parry and Stowe share the stage for the whole of the two hour play, with an occasional visit from the woman in black to break up their shared solitude. In the play-within-the-play, Stowe-the-actor portrays Kipps-the-character during his younger years. He’s a solicitor sent on a mission to a remote village to tend to the post-mortem affairs of one Mrs. Drablow. Parry-the-actor playing Kipps-the-storyteller slips in and out of various roles supporting the story. One moment he’s himself, Kipps, with his tenuous presence and timid demeanor. The next he’s Mr. Jerome, the man assigned to help his younger self navigate the village terrain. Later he’s Keckwick, a top-hatted carriage driver.

It’s confusing on paper, but on stage, Parry manages the changing roles seamlessly. Masterfully. Each has his own accent — from a cockney to a brogue, each distinct and well-performed — and his own body language.

As the actor playing the younger Kipps, Stowe’s charisma commands the stage. Truly, it’s hard to take your eyes off him, so large is his presence, especially on the small, intimate stage at Woolfe Street. He’s loud when the scene calls for it, tender at others. His fear is often palpable. This play would not have worked half so well as it did had Stowe not been so brilliant.

The faults with the play were mostly environmental. The evening outside was warm and steamy, and in an un-air conditioned bit of the theater, things were warm and sticky within. This issue will resolve itself with the cooler weather promised for next weekend, but it’s something for theater-goers to keep in mind. Wear layers that can be easily removed.

Also, while most of the play uses frights of a more subtle nature — a creaking door, invisible footsteps, a child’s eerie cry — there are times when the use of special effects needed a bit more restraint. Flashing lights and high-pitched screams have their place, but should be used to enhance a performance. At the end of The Woman in Black, they were instead something to endured, and could leave audience members with a bit of a headache.

Still, The Woman In Black was a fantastic show. In our contemporary world of blood and guts and gore, it was good to go to a place where the ghosts are more subtle, and the fear of losing our children to a vengeful curse will keep us tossing and turning through many nights to come.


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