“Woman in Black” has quite a pedigree behind it. Stephen Mallatratt’s play, based on the 1983 Gothic horror novella of the same name by writer Susan Hill, has been playing in London since 1987, making it the second longest-running play in West End (London’s version of Broadway) history (only beaten by “The Mousetrap”).
This Halloween, Penfold Theatre, 7 Towers Theatre and the Austin Scottish Rite Theater have joined forces to bring the spooky story to local audiences.
In Hill’s original novella, the story of “The Woman in Black” is structured around the reminiscences of a London solicitor named Arthur Kipps, who faced both supernatural horror and devastating personal loss as a young man when he was assigned to handle the estate of a reclusive woman in the small town of Crythin Gifford. Mallatratt’s play cleverly creates a theatrical framework around this story by having Kipps enlist the help of an unnamed actor in order to portray on stage the events of his haunted experience. The actor ends up playing Kipps, while the real Kipps assumes every other role. In the process, both men come to discover that sometimes the past doesn’t stay hidden and that stories can be dangerous to both the teller and the listener.
The Scottish Rite Theatre is the perfect venue for this spine-tingler as it allows director Emily Rankin and scenic designer Christopher Conard to play with a cavernously large stage that has an eerie, “Inferno”-sequel mural looming in the background. Lighting designer Patrick Anthony makes fantastic use of this space and manages to create a variety of scenic changes and dramatic effects through lighting alone (something incredibly important for a play that relies on shadows and light as an integral part of the story).
Stephen Price as Kipps and Kareem Bader as the actor are both solid in their roles, convincingly shifting between multiple character layers throughout the tale’s meta-theatrical unweaving. Bader is particularly good at creating a compelling aura of unease that helps boost the play’s uncanny atmosphere.
“Woman in Black” has had such a successful run in London for a reason: It is a classic piece of entertaining, imaginative theater that has the ability to enthrall audiences when it is at its most potent. Despite a very slow start, the Penfold/7 Towers/Scottish Rite production builds up to that atmosphere, thanks to Price’s and Bader’s performances, Anthony’s innovative lighting and Rankin’s creative staging conceits. It’s not the flashiest or most cutting-edge of shows, but it effectively tells Mallatratt’s and Hill’s eerie story, a perfect fit for the Halloween season.
“WOMAN IN BLACK”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 29, with no performance Oct. 21 and additional performance Oct. 30
Where: Scottish Rite Theater, 207 W. 18th St.