The Woman in Black, described in the program as a ghost story, is mild stuff unlikely to cause you any sleep deprivation. In fact, it might actually help lull you into a somnambulant state--during the show. And this is a work (adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill's novel) that has been playing for the last dozen years at London's Fortune Theatre with so many cast replacements by now that the even press people have lost count.
The ingenuity evidenced by Mallatratt--ingenuity that keeps one from calling him maladroit--is in reworking Hill's text so that it can be played by two actors. (There is a third, but she isn't billed, doesn't talk, and is infrequently seen). At least, one assumes that cutting the players down to three is what Mallatratt's done. The stage conceit is that the intermissionless drama takes place in a theater where an actor has agreed to play out a script written by a man calling himself Arthur Kipps. When Kipps begins to tell the actor about the script, he maintains that it is based on his own experiences. He also says that, although he once acted, he doesn't have the chops to bring his own scenario to life.
The story Kipps tells is that, as a young lawyer looking after the affairs of a deceased woman called Mrs. Drablow, he traveled to far-flung and gloomy Crythin-Gifford. Establishing himself at an inn, he hied himself to an even gloomier mansion near a menacing marsh. There ensconced, he began to have disturbing adventures. He sighted a woman in black with sunken cheekbones and a generally undernourished look. He also suspected that something was afoot behind the only locked door for which he was given no key. (That's right: Among the plot elements are a locked door and--please don't be surprised--a mysterious attic space. These plot devices date back at least as far as Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. However, there is no fire in The Woman in Black.)
Although Kipps is made extremely uneasy by his surroundings, he sticks it out in Eel Marsh House. He eventually enters the secret room and finds evidence that a child had spent time there. He learns that the boy, who drowned in the marsh, was the son of Mrs. Drablow's sister. As Hill and Mallatratt have the story, this drowning doesn't bode well for Kipps, who is married and has a son; that's because he comes on the information that a sighting of Mrs. Drablow's ghost has a negative effect on children's lives.
Kipps' story takes up most of the stage time of The Woman in Black, going on for about 80 minutes. (Although the play apparently hasn't been trimmed, the London production is performed in two acts.) But as the tale unspools, there are breaks during which Kipps and the actor get chummy with one another. This is when the earnest and game actor tells the constantly affrighted Kipps that he, too, has a son. He mentions that he's had glimpses of Mrs. Drablow's ghost, although Kipps doesn't seem to take that information in. Somewhere in here, Kipps also says he's got a surprise for the actor, which is...but it would be unfair to divulge that revelation in a review. Just let it be known that, when the surprise comes out, it clarifies nothing the audience hasn't long since figured out.
The reason to see The Woman in Black--and believe me, you need one--is the performance of Keith Baxter. This actor, who earned his two-hander stripes when he appeared for so long in Sleuth, once again takes on multiple outfits to impersonate a gang of sinister people. As the real Kipps and as all the Crythin-Gifford folks whom Kipps meets, he slips in and out of regional accents as easily as he slips in and out of greatcoats, vests, and hairpieces. It's a pleasure to see the craggily handsome Baxter back on a New York stage, even in something as inconsequential as this de-fanged ghost story. Jared Reed is also handsome, sleek and graceful as the actor called on to play Kipps, all the while attempting to keep his own mental balance.
Whatever terror The Woman in Black hopes to strike in the hearts of theatergoers relies as strongly on the design team as it does on the storyline. Set designer James Noone, costume designer Noel Taylor, lighting designers Ken Billington, and especially sound designer Chris B. Walker have done their best to add fright-night thrills to a script that doesn't incorporate them.
One question remains: How did something this tame manage such a lengthy run in London? My guess is that the answer has something to do with the British love-hate relationship with Victoriana. Hill and Mallatratt's piece certainly concerns itself with the fear for--as well as the fear of--children that was so much a part of Victorian life and literature, showing up repeatedly in works by, say, Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. But those facets will mean far less this side of the pond. When the producers of The Woman in Black start tallying the box office proceeds, they may come to think of their project as The Woman in Red.