By ROY BERKO
Susan Hill, author of the book “The Woman in Black,” the source of the play of the same name now being staged at the Cleveland Play House (CPH), relates: “The Suffolk coast. Winter. The early Seventies. Behind the path giving onto the shingle beach and the North Sea, are marshes, mysterious places with narrow paths where reed-beds make a dry rustling sound in the low wind that moans across here. I rented a house for several winters to work and often walked the marsh paths. Once, I was making fast for home when dusk was closing in.
“The blackened hull of a rotting boat lay low in the mud. The last geese squawked home in the darkening sky. I sensed ghosts everywhere, looked behind me as I walked faster. There was a strange, steely light glinting, and shadows. Easy to let your imagination run away with you there and the scene stayed with me, though it was another 10 years before I actually made use of it.”
The resulting “use of the experience” was a 1983 Victorian ghost story entitled “The Woman in Black.” The book was met with acceptable reviews, but hit its stride when, in 1987, it was transformed into a play by Stephen Mallatratt.
The West End production, which opened in London in 1989 and is still running, has been staged over 11,000 times and is the second longest running drama in English theatrical history. It is only eclipsed by Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which has had over 27,000 performances. It was adapted into a 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe.
The play is, in fact, a play within a play. Retired solicitor, Arthur Kipps, engages a young actor to coach him in how to deliver a public reading of a ghost story he has written, based on a real life experience.
The actor eventually takes over the role of Kipps and acts out, with the aid of Kipps, who portrays a number of parts, the tale of a mysterious spectra that haunts an English town.
The tale, as related, took place many years earlier when Kipps was a junior solicitor working for a Mr. Bentley. Kipps was sent to Crythin Gifford, on the north east coast of England, to attend the funeral of Mrs. Alice Drablow, a reclusive widow who lived alone in the huge, foreboding, desolate Eel Marsh House, separated from the town by a causeway. At high tide it was cut off from the mainland.
At the funeral, Kipps observes a woman dressed in black, surrounded by a group of children.
Upon arrival at Eel Marsh House, Kipps is confronted by unexplained noises, a galloping horse drawing a carriage, screams of a young child and a woman, and the appearance of the Woman In Black.
He finds papers which reveal that Mrs. Drablow’s sister, Jennet, gave birth to a child. Because she was unmarried, her sister and the sister’s husband adopted the boy with the understanding that Jennet was never revealed as his mother.
Jennet went away for a short period, but returned to take care of the boy. One day, a horse and carriage, carrying the boy across the causeway, sank into the marshes and the boy died. Jennet stood at a window helplessly watching.
Rumor had it that when Jennet died, she haunted Eel March House and the town of Crythin Gifford as The Woman in Black. According to local tales, a sighting of her presaged the death of a child.
Thus is laid the foundation for what happened to Kipps upon his return to London as it related to his own marriage and child.
At the end of his tale, Kipps finishes his reminiscence with the words, “They have asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.”
It can easily be seen why the play had captured the minds of the London theatre goers. Unfortunately, the CPH production, under the direction of Robin Herford, is lacking. The visual image is not aided by designer Michael Holt’s oft-confusing and distracting set.
The production lacks intensity. Though some of the scary aspects of the script are present, the needed “jump for fear” factors and the “impending doom “is often missing.
Adam Wesley Brown is quite acceptable as The Actor. Bradley Armacost, however, as Arthur Kipps and other roles, is often difficult to hear due to a lack of projection. Therefore, some intricacies of the story are lost. Hopefully, as the show runs and the actors will get comfortable and increase the intensity of their performances.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: At this pre-Halloween season, The Woman in Black appears to have been a good choice. The success of this type of play is dependent upon the audience using its imagination, the instances of shock-induced terror and the jumpy, scream-induced moments. These, unfortunately, are somewhat missing in this production.
The Woman in Black runs through October 7, 2018 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or click here.