All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Snoopy’s famous and much-maligned opening line would be an appropriate beginning for “The Woman in Black,” Stephen Mallatratt and Susan Hill’s neatly crafted ghost story at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse.
Several dark and stormy nights disturb the quiet and upset the equanimity of the lead character, a young London solicitor working on a straightforward probate case in the bleak but beautiful marshlands in the northeast tip of England. Here, as in “Wuthering Heights,” moors dominate the landscape. Fogs, cleaner but as thick as the eye-stinging pea soup vapors the solicitor, Arthur Kipps, expects to leave behind in London, sweep through the area day and night, often obliterating any semblance of visibility. Darkness and storm can also occur in mid-afternoon. A causeway, the only means of getting from the house of the deceased to the small village adjoining it, floods to prevent passage at high tide, and the marsh during Kipps’s stay proved unpredictable, differing wantonly from its usual schedule. Kipps reaches it via a pony and trap driven by the lone man skiled at negotiating the marshes and their fickle temperament.
Though the dead woman’s home, where Kipps chooses to lodge, is dry and comfortable, the place at which it is situated is particularly affected by the sudden moods of the roiling and mistbound November weather. Kipps cannot relax and starts at every noise and each new mystery that emerges. When those noises become shrieks and the mystery becomes a stubbornly locked door inexplicably found open, Kipps knows he is in the presence of something that challenges his solid Edwardian beliefs and trust in his five senses. A ethereal woman, swathed in black, with a skeletal face, skin seeming just elastic enough to cover it in spite of its thinness, seems to hold a clue. Well plotted and shrewdly timed, “The Woman in Black” shows how Kipps copes with his fears and revelations, and the Act II cast, Jered McLenigan and Dan Kern, under the direction of James J. Christy, keeps you rapt and eager to learn what happens next in Mallatratt’s inventive adaptation of Hill’s dense and captivating story.
Acting is as integral to “The Woman in Black” as fogs, floods, and wonder are. The play begins with Kern, portraying Kipps in old age, hiring McLenigan to coach him in acting so he can read a long text he composed to friends and relatives who may have wondered at his behavior or experiences over years. The manuscript tells the story of Kipps’s life-changing tenure on the northern moors, and the now-retired solicitor wants to give it dramatic justice, to read it effectively and affectingly.
Although Christy and company will act out events fully, the play within a recitation format works. It allows both actors to play a variety of characters and gives McLenigan’s teacher occasional chances to stop and comment on the action to date.
McLenigan and Kern are superb. McLenigan is limited to two roles, the acting coach, which he assays with a lower class London neighborhood dialect, and the younger Kipps, who he endows with the trained, stiff-upper lip tones of the well educated professional. McLenigan’s character poaches the Kipps role from the actual solicitor as a way of showing him how to play it. Kern, in addition to coming in at times as the older Arthur, introduces us to several characters, the elder solicitor who assigns Kipps to the probate case, the agent in the northeastern village who assists him, a landowner he meets on a train, and the taciturn pony cart driver. These men look and dress enough alike that Kern differentiates them by speech. In doing so, he dons variations of a similar accent. Each one, no doubt thanks to instruction from dialect coach, Hazel Bowers, remains distinct. Kern is remarkable in his ability to let us see and hear at a glance the persona he’s adopted. Christy and the audience are in good, sure hands.
Susan Hill did smart legwork for the novel on which Mallatratt bases his script for “The Woman in Black.” According to Act II program notes by Bill d’Agostino, Hill read ghost novels and isolated the elements they had in common. She uses these traits in forming her own book which Christy tells us is beautifully written with gorgeous descriptions of the scenery,
To Christy’s and his actor’s credits, you can see the moors and the tide-dependent passage to the dead woman’s house despite the fact Dan Boylen’s set for Act II is a vacant theater, its stage populated by the backs of used flats labelled by production and position. Those flats, covered with scrim, give Christy the chance to let you see through them, so James Leitner’s lighting and your own imagination can have an effect. McLenigan and Kern trigger that imagination with their evocative readings of Mallatratt’s description of the terrain and weather conditions.
All unfolds intensely. McLenigan and Kern build an atmosphere of suspense. You get involved in the mystery, in Hill’s ghost story, and you want to know more and more. The skill of the actors is hypnotizing in the best way. They draw you in. Strategic appearances of the woman in black McLenigan, as the young Kipps, describes, also builds tension.
The mood, as “The Woman in Black” progresses, becomes more and more portentous. You are poised and ready for something to happen. Events occur, but “The Woman in Black,” at Act II, remains more an exercise in acting and storytelling than it is a thriller.
McLenigan, Kern, and Christy keep you expectant and keen to hear more, but the Act II production never frightens or chills. There was one instance, in the sequence in which Kipps wanders through the rooms that had been unreachable because of the locked door, that gave me a momentary jolt, a frisson of a goose bump at the top of my spine, but in general, I was impressed more with the verbal web spinning of the actors, the architecture of Hill’s tale, and the deft way Mallatratt used an acting lesson as his way into a theatrical piece, than with any sense of danger or fright at the appearance of the ghost, played with ephemeral smoothness by Mary Lee Bednarek.
Interestingly, although Mallatratt certainly supplies ample apprehension about what might happen on the barren landscape where Kipps finds himself, he saves his coup de grace, the detail that gives the audience the most pause and concern, for a passing comment that occurs during the rehearsal scenes when McLenigan is playing the teacher, one who claims he will make Kipps into an Irving, and Kern is playing the elderly Kipps. Neither character picks up the clue when it occurs, but the audience does, and, because we know something about the personal life of the acting coach, the idea evokes wonder and worry that surpasses all that happens on the moors, pregnant with possibility though they are.
McLenigan makes the young Kipps’s descent from a confident, ghost doubting London gentleman to a self-doubting, suspicious, and frightened man quite palpable. Through the actor, you live the dread Arthur experiences and anticipates. As the acting coach, McLenigan is appropriately abrupt and brusquely bullying. If he can’t coach the older Kipps into a gripping performance, he’ll coax it out of him by being demanding and never taking no, or an instance of laziness, for an answer. McLenigan’s actor is bent on earning his fee. He also enjoys taking the part of Kipps at the troubled home of the deceased. The look of McLenigan’s face when he realizes Mallatratt’s surprise is particularly telling.
Kern moves from one coot in tweeds to another with distinctive aplomb. He captures the frankness and bravura of the businessman landowner, the hesitant politeness and justified fear of the solicitor’s agent, and the rugged, unimpressed silence of the pony and trap driver. Best of all, he is a dimensional older Kipps, showing the man’s resolve to present his story while conveying simultaneously the relative peace age has brought to Kipps and the need to get one last major task accomplished so that peace can be enjoyed.
Christy does a fine job of layering and pacing the production so it becomes more atmospheric as it proceeds. He builds an intensity that never graduates to horror or real fright but benefits from the audience’s discomfort that it might.
His use of the woman in black is deft but undercut at times by using the acting lesson format to have stage hands visibly moving and changing scenery as the play is in progress. This choice distracts and confuses. It may Christy’s intention to keep the audience guessing whether every entrance by a character not played by McLenigan or Kern means something, and to keep people on edge with wonder, but the appearance of the stage hands always interrupts and never adds to tension or to mystery.
“The Woman in Black” runs through Sunday, November 24, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $34 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 215-654-0200 or going online to www.act2.org.