“The Woman in Black,” which opened this week at Acadia Repertory Theatre in Somesville, has all the classic elements of an it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night chiller. There’s a haunted house, a swallowing marsh, a wrathful mother, a town secret, creepy locals and lots of zipped-up English accents. You might say it’s one part “Rebecca,” one part Agatha Christie and one part “Psycho.”
Anyway you look at it – even if it’s through the cracks in your fingers when you cover your eyes – “Woman in Black” is a hokey Victorian spook-o-rama that has played in London for 13 years and is the secondlongest-running show after “The Mousetrap.” Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a 1983 young-readers novel by Susan Hill, the tale is about Arthur Kipps, a solicitor who seeks to exorcise recurring nightmares of a tragic event 25 years earlier by hiring an actor to coach him theatrically to retell the events at a family gathering on Christmas Eve.
Forget about figuring out what kind of maladjusted family tells ghost stories for Christmas fun. Direct your attention to staying awake for the first 15 minutes of this script, which is scary only because it suggests the rest of the play will be morbidly boring – especially when Kipps reveals he has a five-hour manuscript to read. But don’t worry. Without any warning whatsoever, you will be smack in the middle of an all-out thriller.
It’s anyone’s guess how that transformation takes place, but it’s likely to be yet another testament to director Wayne Loui’s magic touch. He tiptoes right up to the edge of cliche and then pulls the reins like a cowboy on a precipice. The sand and dust – or in this case fog – get kicked up, but the story doesn’t crash into the canyon below. That’s not to say there isn’t some cornball in this show. It’s just not embarrassing cornball.
It would be, however, in the hands of actors with an ounce less talent than Doug Meswarb, as Arthur Kipps the catharsis-seeking lawyer, and Robert Libbey, as the psychodrama-swept thespian. In a conceit that is narratively intriguing, the two men meticulously act out the past by taking on the parts of all the players in Kipps’ dreaded story. The actor becomes Kipps, and Kipps plays all the other roles. They go at it until Kipps is purged of his burdens. But egads, the outcome is less rewarding for the actor.
One imagines that this is the rudimentary stuff of psychoanalysis, the identity-switching, past-delving methods that head docs encourage 50 minutes at a time in clients. More to the point, it’s a tour de force for actors because it offers that special in-and-out of accents, costumes and characters that allow performers to strut their stuff. And strut they do. And strut they should because Meswarb and Libbey are well-matched in their brisk, fearless, switcharoo-ing performances.
Surely to emphasize and exercise theatrical artifice, the setting for the show is the stage of a small Victorian theater complete with random stage props, a hamper, and a wardrobe that the men handily make use of. The technical team – lead by Elliott Wilcox with help from Caitlin Medb Harrison, Frank Beck and Josh Chenard – is responsible for more than 125 lighting cues and 75 sound cues. Having near-perfect timing with background shrieks, fog dispersal, and mood lighting, they win the real prize for keeping this show from sinking into the specter of the gloomy marsh they help create. If they weren’t working so deftly at Acadia Rep, they could all consider reviving radio plays.
To give away any more would be to rob theatergoers of the shadowy surprises that lurk in the Yorkshire bogs of “The Woman in Black.” Here’s the best heads up available: The play ends predictably. Still, stay in your seat. In fact, take the kids. They’ll may learn a little something about storytelling – or at least get an idea or two for Halloween.
Acadia Repertory Theatre will present “The Woman in Black” at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through July 13 and 2 p.m. July 14 at the Masonic Hall in Somesville. For information, call 244-7260.