If you haven’t seen The Woman in Black at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) in Washington, DC, there is only a limited amount of time left. The play is on at the smaller of the two STC complexes, which is called the Michael R. Klein at the Lansburgh. Playwright Stephen Mallatratt adapted Susan Hill’s 1983 Neo-Gothic novel in 1987. It tells the chilling story of Arthur Kipps and hauntings by a mysterious woman in black in a small UK town.
The story may sound familiar, because the success of the play led to a 2012 film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe. The film had a large cast of actors, whereas the play only has two actors. While Kipps’ story overall is the same, the play yields surprises and twists that make the theater experience enjoyable and rewarding even if one knows the film’s plot.
The play opens with Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) attempting to read his manuscript. His soft and quavering delivery is in dire need of work, as a younger man listed as “The Actor” (Daniel Easton) in the script points out. The Actor insists that he and Kipps “trade places.” The younger man portrays a young Arthur Kipps while old Kipps makes the best of playing the supporting characters: the solicitor sending young Kipps out, the town official meeting him, and a pony and trap driver initially of few words.
As a young solicitor, Kipps was tasked with setting an estate for an elderly woman who recently passed away. It’s not so easy a project, unfortunately, with the odd woman in black showing up in the old house. Young Kipps turns detective and uncovers that the woman in black is after revenge.
Throughout the first act, the Actor and old Kipps have a lively discourse about employing clever theatrical devices: stage lights, recorded sound, simple props, and character changes signified by coat changes. A plain drape in the back also reveals large spaces with just the right amount of light. My favorite prop was the simple and large wicker box, representing trunks, the seat for a pony and trap ride, and even a convincingly comfortable bed.
Combining all of those elements together does indeed establish a fascinating exercise about acting and its hold on an audience. Easton and Goodale deserve much praise in their careful handling of every scene change, because director Robin Hereford and both actors understand so keenly how to perform those shifts and drive the plot forward. It would be incredible to see Easton and Goodale return to D.C. in other STC productions.
Towards the end of the first act, the events focus more on young Kipps’ story, as performed by The Actor. We get less and less of the banter and discourse in the second act. Under lighting designer Kevin Sleep, the dramatic swatches of darkness signify that something could be lurking. The terror there lies mostly in the realm of feeling a little spooked and jumping in your seat during the show.
The twist at the end is not entirely a surprise, given the emphasis between the two men on trading places. There are a couple of hints that a viewer could catch and tuck away for the end. However, the impact of that development feels quite strong in the emotional performances and looks of dismay by both actors at the final reveal.
It’s amazing that The Woman in Black has stood the test of time, reaching its 30th year in running on London’s West End. The play holds the record as the second-longest running play there. For just a while longer, you can still see it in Washington, DC.
The Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh is located on 450 7th St NW, minutes away from Gallery Place – Chinatown. Book online or contact the box office at (202) 547-1122.