The Woman in Black

Local Arts Reviews


The Woman in Black

State Theater, through Nov. 23

Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.

It takes so little to haunt us. A shadow, a footfall, the creak of a hinge. On a moonless night, in a house alone, these are the only things necessary to convince us that we are in touch with the other side, the immaterial world. Hollywood may be able to generate impressive specters with the sophisticated technology at its disposal, but rarely are its ghosts as persuasive -- or terrifying -- as those conjured from the simple sights and sounds we encounter in darkness and solitude. The unexplained noise and sudden movement in the corner of one's eye frighten us into belief.

The power of such little things to make spirits real drives The Woman in Black, a terrifically old-fashioned ghost story in the English tradition. As adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill's novel, the play sets us in an old Victorian theatre, where a lawyer has engaged an actor to help him prepare a dramatic presentation of a story he wrote. Suggesting scene and character with theatrical simplicity -- facing chairs for a train compartment; a trunk for a horse-drawn cart; a coat, spectacles, or shift in dialect for various individuals -- the two men recount a mission that the attorney undertook for his firm some years earlier, in which he attended the funeral of an elderly female client and sorted through her papers. Initially, the tale seems unremarkable, but as the pair carries us from London barrister's office to far-flung seaside village to empty, forbidding estate on the salt marshes of England's eastern coast, it acquires an ominous edge, and with the sighting of a gaunt figure in black, it becomes a confrontation with an otherworldly menace, seeking revenge from beyond the grave.

In the State Theater Company production, the horror descends like a winter twilight, coming gradually for the longest time before an abrupt plunge into utter blackness. The old playhouse crafted by Christopher McCollum is cozy, its ropes, props, and gas lamps recalling theatre past with a romantic flourish. The actors ease into the work, Corey Gagne's actor striding across the stage with the casual confidence of a man at home there, Paul Norton's beige lawyer exuding the blandness of curds and whey. The contrast gives their early interaction a disarming comic touch. But as they perform the lawyer's tale, a sense of dread creeps into their manner, enhanced by the brooding atmospherics contributed by the crack design team: the sulphurous light with which Richard Winkler summons the choking air of industrial London; his artful use of darkness, keeping much of the stage in threatening shadow; the sinister fog which prowls through the auditorium like a living thing, crawling over us, wisps curling and uncurling like spectral fingers; the bitter coastal winds, eerie thumps, and moans of unearthly origin conjured by the Gunn Brothers. By the time we hear the awful, piercing shriek which signals the play's roller-coaster drop into horror, the faces of Gagne and Norton have tightened into masks of panic and alarm, and we're caught fast in the story's grip, believing and terrified.

Director Michelle Polgar masterfully orchestrates this mood and menace, keeping a close hold on pace and what we perceive. Her production stays admirably true to its roots in Victorian literature and melodrama but also to much older traditions, those that address the hold that the dead have on us and the role our imaginations play in keeping them among us. Through that, this show is able to banish a bright, autumnal afternoon in Central Texas and set us squarely in a dark, wintry night in northern England, to face spirits in a shadow, a footfall, the creak of a hinge.

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The Woman in Black, Stephen Mallatratt, Susan Hill, State Theater Company, Michelle Polgar, Christopher McCollum, Corey Gagne, Paul Norton, Richard Winkler, Gunn Brothers

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