Even in these post-Halloween days, when half-rotten jack-o'-lanterns and crumpled paper skeletons sit at the curb awaiting trash pickup, there's nothing like a good scare. And few stories over the ages have been genuinely creepier than Henry James's classic story of corrupt valet Peter Quint (R.I.P.) wrestling with a neurotic governess for the soul of a young boy.
Fortunately, the Actors' Summit's rendition of The Woman in Black not only resurrects the back-from-the-grave feel of James's work, but is scary enough by itself to cure a serious case of the hiccups. Based on Susan Hill's 1983 gothic novel of the same name, the play centers around Arthur Kipps's fervid recollections of his youthful days as solicitor, when he repeatedly encountered an enraged specter.
The intrepid Kipps learns that the ghost had once been an unwed mother forced to hand over her baby to her stern sister. The child later drowned in a freak accident, leading the bereaved mother to madness and, eventually, an agonizing death. For the next 60 years, her tortured spirit haunted the village like a vengeful Cassandra in Victorian mourning weeds, foretelling the deaths of young children.
Stephen Mallatratt, who wrote this adaptation, weaves a baroque tapestry around the original ghost story. In this version, the now-middle-aged solicitor rents a Victorian theater and hires a hammy actor to help him exorcise the horrible events of 20 years ago. The two change places -- with the actor assuming the role of Kipps as a young man and the inexperienced solicitor timidly playing the other subordinate roles.
The play-within-a-play shrewdly blends old-time radio sound effects and narration with a stripped-down theatricality reminiscent of Thornton Wilder. An empty chair suddenly starts rocking, suggesting the presence of evil. The woman in black herself, in a breathtaking theatrical moment worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, suddenly materializes at a funeral, shimmering in a blasphemous halo.
Filling the demands of a script nightmarish in both content and challenging structure are Wayne Turney and Peter Voinovich. Radiating a joyous innocence and wonder, and looking quite like a stuffed owl, Turney's experience hosting a children's show is apparent. His Kipps is a reluctant storyteller turned Pied Piper, blithely leading the audience into treacherous territory. Voinovich's controlling actor character, employing the charmingly overenunciated English accent of a road company Sherlock Holmes, balances his co-star's whimsy. He easily covers the emotional terrain, ranging from self-mocking pomposity to wide-eyed fright.
In a play that depends on sleight-of-hand staging, where production values are essential, director Neil Thackaberry is not altogether comfortable -- but he does manage to keep the sense of psychological terror intact. Richard B. Ingraham's evocative sound, Dan Polk's sepia lighting, and Mary Jo Alexander's fusty costumes all add the appropriate verisimilitude.
The Woman in Black may not be a fount of profundity or subtlety, but it just may be one of the most satisfying scares since Henry James turned that screw.