The Woman in Black

Raleigh Little Theatre
Through Oct. 23

Arriving in time for Halloween, The Woman in Black brings one of London’s longest-running productions to the Raleigh Little Theatre. The play tells the story of Arthur Kips, an English lawyer assigned to handle the estate of the late Mrs. Drablow, a recluse who lived in a creepy old house on the edge of a small town. No one in town likes to talk about her, and no one but Kips has any desire to go near the house. Needless to say, the house’s dark secrets start revealing themselves before too long.

The whole story, directed by Haskell Fitz-Simons, is contained as a play-within-a-play, ostensibly written by Kips (Rowell Gormon) years later. He is assisted in the rehearsals by an unnamed actor (Clint Lienau), who actually plays Kip as they work through the scenes. Kips stands in for the various personalities encountered along the way, from a sniffling clerk to a taciturn coach driver. If this sounds like a gimmick, it is, but the actors make good fun of it. Gormon, in particular, is very good at distinguishing among his various characters (he has a great talent for quickly cycling through a variety of English accents), and Lienau plays young and arrogant in a way that comes off as charming instead of grating.

What the play’s structure provides beyond rote meta-theatrics, however, is a pretty good metaphor for how ghost stories work. The unseen and the imagined are far more potent and terrifying than any actual monster, and by drawing attention to this fact through a staged rehearsal and a sparse but convincing set (a couple of trunks and chairs stand in for most of the props), The Woman in Black is chillingly effective when the ghosts do show up. By the time the fog machine turns on and screaming ghosts are heard across a meadow, it’s an open question whether the play-within-a-play (along with the relative safety such a conceit provides) has vanished and the audience has been thrust into more dangerous territory. This question persists up through the play’s very final moment.

Next year you can expect to see a big-screen Hollywood adaptation of The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe. It’s unlikely that a bigger budget, a larger cast and more expansive production values would add much to the story. Indeed, it will probably detract. Better to catch the story in its current, creepy incarnation, where imagination still goes a long way.