The Woman in Black brings a chilling darkness to the Royal George — without a cheap digital scare in sight.
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
The usual admonition to turn off your cell phones has a particular intensity at “The Woman in Black,” now at the Royal George Theatre. “We use very low level levels of light in this production,” says the disembodied British voice, implying that even a single glowing screen could blow this old-school gothic ghost story for everyone present.
That was not a problem in 1987 when a writer named Stephen Mallatratt, working in the Yorkshire town of Scarborough, first decided to adapt a then-obscure novel by Susan Hill, a toe-curling shocker about a young lawyer sent to a remote and lonely house to deal with a dead woman’s affairs. Cut off from the northeast England mainland by high tides, Eel Marsh House houses an especially bitter ghost, whose deadly hauntings ricochet across time and place. And that’s all you need to know in advance about the plot.
Plenty of people in the world could tell you what happens. Director Robin Herford’s production was such a hit that it moved to London’s West End, where it plays to this day. (Aside from “The Mousetrap,” this is the longest running show in British theatrical history.) Even more people encountered “The Woman in Black” in 2012, when it was turned into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe. Reportedly there is a sequel in the works.
The show now at the Royal George — and how great to see this long-dark venue lit up again with terrified faces — is actually directed by Herford. So you might think of this as a chance to see the West End production of “The Woman in Black,” only without the cost of the plane tickets to London. And with the added benefit of two Chicago-based actors in Adam Wesley Brown and Bradley Armacost, a venerable, grizzled Chicago star who adds all kinds of rooted pain and rich complexity to this scary yarn. This might just be a ghost story, but Armacost does not mess around with the mortal truth.
Thus you get what most certainly is the scariest show in town — Herford long ago figured out how to use those low levels of lighting, along with amplified sound-effects and other such theatrical trickery to make audiences jump. And I ain’t talking a quick face in a doorknocker or a big “Deathtrap”-style reveal, but shivery stuff. On repeat.
But what I like most about “The Woman in Black,” a piece without thematic pretension and thus ideal for a fun date after a hard day’s work, is that all of its effects use the technology of 1987. It is a thoroughly non-digital experience and, as such, it now is a rarity and a chance for families to do something together without screens sucking down anyone’s face. I’m talking teens, of course, not little kids, unless you want to scar them for life.
I last saw “The Woman in Black” back in 1997, when a licensed production was staged in Chicago at what then was called the Theatre Building (the stars were Greg Vinkler and Tim Gregory). That decent production — produced by the aptly named Blood Curdling Productions — had a healthy run, but it was neither the original Herford incarnation nor was it staged in the right theater. The Royal George is ideal — intimate enough to feel your whole row jump, but big enough that the fog can roll out from the marsh and that scary, shadowy, skinny figure can wreck the kind of havoc born of tragedy, even if she exists only in your mind.
Mostly. Be careful as you go.
Review: “The Woman in Black” (3.5 stars)