Things That Go Bump In the Night: Act II’s THE WOMAN IN BLACK

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Ambler’s Act II Playhouse continues their current season with a gripping thriller: 1987’s THE WOMAN IN BLACK by Stephen Mallatratt Adapted from a novel by Susan Hill, the story is a psychological character study wrapped in a ghost story; directed by James J. Christy, it features Dan Kern and Jered McLenigan and will run from October 29th to November 24th, 2013 at the theatre’s Butler Avenue venue.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK debuted at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England in 1987; it subsequently moved to London’s West End in 1989, where it is still being performed—making it one of the longest running non-musicals in history. Mallatratt’s script is faithful to the book’s plot; the only change being that the playwright has added an extra dimension by creating a “play-within-a-play” device.

Dan Kern and Jered McLenigan star in THE WOMAN IN BLACK at Act II Playhouse. Photo by Mark Garvin.

I entered Act II’s auditorium to a very familiar sight to me: the backs of old-time cloth theatre flats, complete with show names stenciled on them. You see Mallatratt’s framing device is that middle-aged solicitor Arthur Kipps (Dan Kern) has hired a Victorian theatre—and an intense young actor (Jered McLenigan)—to recreate Eel Marsh House in a remote part of England, and the events that have given him nightmares for almost 50 years. The young actor assumes the role of Kipps and gets him to act out all of the other characters he encountered. However, as they start performing the story, things take an unusual turn…

To reveal anymore would spoil it; suffice it to say that Christy keeps things moving at a brisk pace, telling the story in an exciting, nail-biting way that holds an audience’s attention. He stages things quite cleverly in Act II’s intimate space; his actors dash up and down the theatre’s aisles, engulfing the viewer in the tale. Daniel Boylan’s scenic design is a deceptively simple rendering of a bare stage, yet it serves the production perfectly (with wonderfully hidden details). The young actor uses the assorted odds and ends found at an empty theatre to serve as needed furniture, etc. Chairs become train seats, the theatre’s “ghost light” becomes a room lamp, a ladder becomes a clerk’s perch… At one point a large wheeled bin with a wooden lid is put into service as a buggy, to great effect. The remote marshy locale comes fully to life as James Leitner’s atmospheric lighting design elicits the correct moods as needed, and Christopher Colucci’s wonderfully evocative soundscape surrounds the audience and becomes another character in the piece. Adding to the viewer’s immersion in the tale is the almost ever-present fog that emanates from both onstage and the back of the house. Rounding out the solid technical support for the production are Frankie Fehr’s terrific Victorian costume pieces and Avista Theatrical Services spot-on props.

Kern and McLenigan are exciting to watch as they deftly unfold the tale. Kern initially fools the viewer as he embodies Kipps as a soft-spoken man flatly reading the start of his story, but soon delights as he veers from character to character, donning accents as quickly as he does costume bits. A seasoned performer, he knows just how far to go without slipping into caricature. McLenigan is fabulous as he morphs from the flamboyant actor to the earnest young Kipps caught up in something far beyond his comprehension. He handles the bulk of the narration that fills in the transitions from scene to scene, and he brings the images to life perfectly. Both men do an amazing job making this very dense script live before our eyes. Kudos also to Hazel Bowers’ dialect work—the accents are authentic sounding but totally understandable to American ears.

Halloween may have passed, but this is still the perfect time of year for a good, spine-chilling ghost story, and Act II’s THE WOMAN IN BLACK does not disappoint. I highly recommend that you make the trip to Ambler to catch this engrossing production—but you might want to take someone with you so you can hang on to each other at the really scary parts…

by Stephen Mallatratt
Based on the novel by Susan Hill
Directed by James J. Christy
October 29—November 24, 2013
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002


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