note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Okay, I’ll admit it. I was startled and shrieked a few times while seeing Salem Theatre Company’s hauntingly engaging, two-man (and ghost) production of Stephen Mallatratt’s spine-tinging adaptation of “The Woman in Black”.
Based on Susan Hill’s spooky novel, this version is hair-raising in the Witch City’s small theater. The story starts out seemingly harmless, with a distressed, timid gent reluctantly hiring a drama teacher so he can end his nightmares by telling his tale of woe to relatives and friends. It ambles along, with mounting suspense and eclipsing crescendoes. David Allen George, Salem State University’s fantastic professor, theater coordinator, and founder-artistic director of the Summer Theater at Salem State, and Allen Vietzke, Emerson College teacher and veteran thespian, are a dynamically dramatic duo, who at times are upstaged by an unheralded, unnamed female specter.
We meet haunted British solicitor, Arthur Kipps, (George), who desperately wants to tell his incredulous tale to exorcise a ghost that has brought misery to his life. He figures by relating his story to friends and family, it will cathartically release him, once and for all. Insisting he’s not an actor, Kipps hires an actor to guide him through his re-enactment.
True to creepy mysteries involving the paranormal, this yarn starts slowly, almost comedically, as Kipps and the actor work together. Kipps slowly emerges from his self-consciousness with relish, portraying several eccentric characters he encountered during his venture.
Kipps was sent to settle the estate of deceased 87-year-old Mrs. Alice Drablow. After attending her lonely funeral, he heads to Eel Marsh House in the foreboding fog-engulfing marshes of Nine Lives Causeway, which becomes cut off from the mainland at high tide. A heavy malevolence, anchored by fog, mist and muddy quicksand, whispers hideous secrets, foretelling tragedy. Poring through Mrs. Drablow’s unorganized mounds of papers, Kipps - and we - become increasingly terrified of unexplainable noises and unearthly visits.
People in the adjoining town are frightened of the reclusive widow’s house, knowing strange events occurred there 60 years ago and continue, with disastrous results to hapless visitors. They’re not superstitious, they insist. They know better.
Versatile Catherine Bertrand bravely directs George (her former teacher) and Vietzke with an artistic flair. John Fogle’s battery of sounds, from receding and stomping hoofbeats, muffled and thumping heartbeats, shrieks, and creepy effects, is accented by Ryan Kasle’s lighting and Linda Ross Girard’s wardrobe of hats, coats, vests and scarves, which the two men doff and don during their multi-character portrayals.
A black background and sky, with a pale white, full moon hovers in the background of this scantily furnished stage. A scrim reveals the proverbial family cemetery plot. A creepy woman clad in old-fashioned funeral weeds extends her arm, pointing a thin, terrifying, gloved finger, her “wasted, wan” face covered by a thick lacy veil.
If you’ve never seen or read “The Woman in Black,” I won’t spoil its twisted “Twilight Zone” ending.
Experiencing the play in Salem, the Halloween Capital of the World, where ghosts, goblins, witches, pirates and other netherworldly beings roam through space and the streets, is the ultimate in spookiness. And this cast and crew know precisely how to raise your hackles.
Check also for another Halloween treat at the Salem Theatre. Magician Eric Northrup performs his 40-minute, Halloween magic show for all ages, Oct. 20-29, Thursday through Saturday, at 6,7,and 8 p.m. All tickets are $10 each. For more information, visit www.salemtheatre.com or call 978-790-8546.
BOX INFO: Two-act. two-man mystery, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt, appearing at Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St., Salem through Oct. 15, Wednesday-Saturday, at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $22; seniors, $18; students, $12. Visit www.salemtheatre.com, or e-mail email@example.com.