“The Woman in Black” is a roller coaster ride of spookiness.
While watching it, I found myself reacting physically: I shrank in my seat, I folded my arms across my chest in a protective gesture. I shivered with a chill that ran up my spine and down my arms.
And yes, I even involuntarily responded verbally, much to the amusement of the person sitting next to me.
“The Woman in Black,” playing at the Florida Repertory Theatre through Nov. 14, is the theater’s first play in the Arcade Theatre after closing for the pandemic in March 2020. And it’s a fitting show to open with, after such a long time dormant: it’s a play about the power and magic of theater as much as it is a ghost story.
Written by Stephen Mallatrat, it’s an adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 gothic novel of the same name.
We first meet V. Craig Heidenreich and David Darrow in a small Victorian theater, surrounded by boxes and trunks haphazardly strewn about the stage. Some larger pieces of the set — stone arches, a wooden door — are draped in canvas. (Fittingly, scenic designer Jim Hunter has also made sure to include a ghost light in this ghost story set in a theater.)
The action begins slowly, as Arthur Kipp (Mr. Heidenreich) begins and starts his story over and over. He’s telling a tale of what happened to him as a young lawyer sent to look through the papers of a widow who recently died and settle her affairs.
But everything is not as it seems.
Mr. Darrow’s character, a kind of acting coach, directs and prompts Mr. Kipp, who does not want to be an actor; he simply wants to be able to tell his tale clearly and possibly purge himself of it.
The two meet, day after day, with Mr. Kipp threatening at times to leave.
But he’s persuaded to stay, and switch places with his coach. Mr. Darrow begins to play Arthur Kipp, the young lawyer, and Mr. Heidenreich plays the various people he interacted with, including a clerk with a pronounced sniff, an innkeeper and a carriage driver. He does this keenly, sometimes just switching hats and accents; his entire persona transforms. Gone is the hesitant, stiff-mannered man we originally met, stumbling his way through his story.
Mr. Darrow as Mr. Kipp is young, eager, naïve, feeling himself above all the superstition and ghost-talk he hears. (Keen-eyed theater-goers will remember him as Monty in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” who kills eight people or so while also wooing two women. It was the last full show Florida Rep staged before having to shut down due to Covid.)
But the eeriness of the old stone home and locale gets to him, the unexplained sounds, the townspeople’s unwillingness to engage or talk about past history.
The plot moves slowly, very slowly, but it’s like quicksand; before we know it, we’re sucked into the action and find ourselves being pulled in without our volition.
Not much more can be said without giving the plot and its surprises away.
“The Woman in Black” is not to everyone’s taste; some may find it too slow-moving. It’s also a play within a play.
But director Steve Pacek, making his Florida Rep debut here, has the play build suspense as it gains momentum.
The special effects are quite nicely done, thanks to lighting designer Alyssandra Docherty and sound designer Joel Abbott. The action’s set in the Victorian era, and Mr. Heidenreich’s initial character marvels at the new invention of sound recordings that create atmosphere with the noise of a busy London street or a horse’s hooves.
But poor sound also mars this otherwise exquisite production. Due to inadequate amplification, the actors, at times, were difficult to hear and understand, a complaint various patrons had.
In addition to being a ghost story, it is also a story that shows what theater excels in: transforming a space filled with odd pieces of this and that, transporting an audience to a mysterious old house in fog-filled marshes. It gives us an entire company of distinct characters with just two men, a handful of props and slight costume changes… and damn good acting.
In tenor, it’s akin to a good radio mystery, as the two also narrate as well as interact with dialogue. It’s amazing how, by just listing items and describing what we’re physically not able to see on the stage, the actors can bring us to a busy London street or a spooky haunted house in the marshes.
With “The Woman in Black,” it’s as if Florida Rep is saying: welcome back! Remember the magic spell theater could cast? Here, let us remind you. ¦
In the KNOW
“The Woman in Black”
» When: through Nov. 14
» Where: Florida Repertory
Theatre, 2268 Bay St., downtown
» Cost: $59 and $55
» Information: 239-332-4488