Cleveland Play House hosts spine-tingling ghost story ‘The Woman in Black’
By Bob Abelman
It’s been suggested that the Hanna Theatre in Playhouse Square is haunted. Perhaps. But the Allen Theatre just down the street most certainly has things that go bump in the night and during the matinees, courtesy of the Cleveland Play House’s season opener “The Woman in Black.”
Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name, and the very stuff the 2012 film with Daniel Radcliffe was made of, this Gothic ghost story was adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt. The play has resided in London for the past 30 years, toured England on several occasions, and has had several productions in other countries.
The current production embraces the original London staging as recreated by the show’s original director, Robin Herford, and is being promoted as the U.S. premiere of the London production.
It will play at Cleveland Play House for several weeks before going on a North American tour. It will inhabit the Royal George Theatre in Chicago for several months, where it rehearsed before moving to the Allen Theatre and from where many of the show’s designers and one of its two featured performers hail.
“The Woman in Black” tells the tale of Arthur Kipps (Bradley Armacost), who as a junior lawyer many years ago, was summoned to attend the funeral of a client in the remote, windswept town of Crythin Gifford to get her affairs in order. While there, he encounters the specter of a wasted, vengeful young woman dressed all in black. With fear still gripping his soul, the now old and exhausted Kipps recounts his experiences with the assistance of a young actor he hired (Adam Wesley Brown) in a desperate attempt to exorcise the ghost by acting out the tale.
It is the acting out that explains this play’s longevity and this production’s enormous appeal, for it is a brilliant study in well-timed jump scares. Each is masterfully created by Mallatratt’s deliciously manipulative narrative, an ominous atmosphere and horror-laced theatricality manufactured by designers Michael Holt (scenic), Kevin Sleep (lighting) and Gareth Owen (sound), and some truly fine acting.
All the action takes place on an old empty stage draped in dark dropcloths that cleverly transforms into every other location, best of all the haunted manor of the recently deceased client. Kipp and The Actor assume the roles of all the characters in the tale as they rehearse its telling. Each character is so brilliantly portrayed by Armacost and Brown that the rehearsal becomes indistinguishable from the actual events that inspired the tale, which helps feed the foreboding.
Those well-schooled in the horror genre will likely be a half-step ahead of the action on stage, for the material taps familiar tropes. But those easily spooked will likely find themselves apologizing to the stranger in the next seat upon detaching from the arm they’ve been clutching for the duration of the two-hour production.
The hardest audience to please with a two-handed, one-set ghost story like “The Woman in Black” is the seasoned theatergoer just coming off of a “Hamilton” high. Pleased they will be, for it is impossible not to marvel at Armacost and Brown’s detailed and always interesting performances and the finely tuned storytelling that surrounds them. CV
Cleveland Play House’s “The Woman in Black”
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Oct. 7
TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $97, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 4, 2018.
Lead image: Adam Wesley Brown as The Actor, from left, and Bradley Armacost as Arthur Kipps. | Photo / Roger Mastroianni