Like its bumbling protagonist, The Woman in Black (★★★☆☆) is a production that needs a bit of patience to be appreciated. Decidedly old-school with no music and a relatively simple set, this two-person ghost story is all about genuine, unadorned theater. Although it will delight those who scoff at modern technical feats, for the other 95 percent of theatergoers it will be a case of getting one’s expectations fully in check.
Thanks to both the book and the well-known movie, and even accepting the limits of the medium, almost everyone will be expecting a fairly exciting ghost story that moves at a reasonable clip. Yet, despite a modicum of skilled, if not overly imaginative, stagecraft, this version isn’t about jaw-dropping stunts or masterfully-managed Conjuring-style scares. Although there will always be a few who jump at literally anything, this is far more about enjoying some skilled performances which indulge a particular, old-fashioned, kind of mood.
First and foremost, prepare for a slow start. Like a grandfather prodded into telling a story, things begin in a ponderous, slightly distracted manner, which only becomes more animated as grandpa warms to his theme. The play opens without preamble on the elderly Arthur Kips dithering and stumbling as he reads aloud what we later learn is his diary. Although we will soon understand why he is standing in this sparsely-decorated room talking to himself, it takes a disconcertingly long time for things to kick off. Even when The Actor, hired by Kips to help him polish his oratory, arrives with flair, there is a lot of waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it doesn’t.
What does eventually unfold is a skillful rendering of past events through the inventiveness of Kips and The Actor as they assume a variety of roles. The effect is quaint: through lighting and sound, the simple room suggests the large, mysterious house across the causeway where a younger Kips was tasked with sorting the affairs of its former occupant. The haunting arrives well-timed and understated.
Though the myriad role-playing is accomplished — Robert Goodale is particularly nuanced — some of the effect is dampened by poor sound modulation. Although Goodale is completely capable of projection, there are times as the unassuming older Kips that he is quite hard to hear. As The Actor, Daniel Easton, although naturally louder, also occasionally swallows his words or rushes them into auditory oblivion. This unevenness also appears in the sound design, with moments when the volume is so loud it is more jarring than dramatic.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that the production has played in London for 30 years. Taken as a little piece of theater history and with generosity, it still makes for a “spirited” evening.
The Woman in Black runs through Dec. 22 at The Shakespeare’s Michael R. Klein Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Tickets are $39 to $79. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
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