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Another Halloween has already come and gone, but a mysterious specter is still haunting the stage at the Keegan Theatre. Maybe if its full story is told, the ghost and its unspeakable horrors will leave the premises?
And why not tell it in chilly November? The increasing popularity of FX’s American Horror Story is just one sign that the demand to be scared and spooked doesn’t end on the Day of the Dead. So if you’re still in the mood for a good ghost story, with even some theatrical fits and frights, Keegan Theatre has certainly got your ticket all month with Stephen Mallatratt’s play The Woman in Black, adapted from Susan Hill’s 30-year-old Gothic novel.
The Woman in Black
(Photo by Cameron Whitman)
Focused on a seriously haunted remote seaside town in England, The Woman in Black is the struggle of a London-based solicitor to first unearth and then publicly reveal the identity of the ghostly titular character. Mr. Kips first sees this ghost as a young man after making the trek to the scary town with a scary name, Crythin Gifford. He goes there to attend the funeral of a client, a reclusive widow. The audience never sees the widow, Mrs. Alice Drablow. But we do see, only ever briefly and faintly in shadows, the female apparition dressed fully in a black Victorian-era dress, as designed by Kelly Peacock. There’s no official credit to the actress miming the part of the ghost here. Because naming names suggests it’s not real. Also, as Mr. Kips had to learn the hard way that revealing too much has real — deathly — consequences.
Officially, therefore, only two actors play all the parts in The Woman in Black: at Keegan, Robert Leembruggen is an older Mr. Kips and Matthew Keenan is the actor Mr. Kips hires to help him muster the courage to tell the ghost tale that has haunted him for too long. But it’s not as easy as it looks or sounds. Once we get into the old tale, Keenan as the actor plays the role of a young Mr. Kips journeying to Crythin Gifford while Leembruggen then assumes the roles of the people he meets along the way. It can be a tad tricky, here and there, keeping things straight, especially as the story bobs between past and present. Of course that only adds to the mystery.
The Woman in Black starts slowly and with restraint, as if it were a stuffy Masterpiece Theatre production brought to life. The late playwright Mallatratt is known for his work on several successful British television series, including The Forsyte Saga, which in fact was featured on the American Masterpiece. But The Woman in Black has been a runaway success in London, where the play has been staged nonstop on the West End for a nearly record-breaking 14 years and counting. So just stick with it if at first you find yourself struggling to understand or stay awake.
Once we get into the heart of the story — and especially once we’re firmly in Mrs. Drabnow’s spooky home on the hill — everything picks up. By the time the show’s over, Keegan and directors Colin Smith and Mark A. Rhea have given theatergoers a real ride; a sophisticated, theatrical equivalent of a haunted house adventure. You just might scream – and certainly will gasp – at least once as a result of a few tricks played by Keegan’s well-coordinated team, most notably Michael Innocenti on lights and Tony Angelini on sound.
If you haven’t come around the way a skeptical Mr. Kips did and still don’t believe in ghosts at play’s end, well, don’t blame Keegan. But do look across the street as you exit. Boo!