A critic once described “Halloween,” the 1978 film about a boy who brutally murders his sister and others in a sleepy Midwestern hamlet, as “cozy.”
It’s a weird descriptor for such a disturbing tale, but it was just the right word for why I return to that film, and others cut from the same chilling cloth. Any good scare is accompanied by a sigh of relief; we know that the lights will come up and we can return to the relative safety of our lives.
That’s why “The Woman in Black,” in all its incarnations, has such enduring appeal. Susan Hill’s 1983 novel traffics in all the classic gothic-horror tropes: A moody countryside estate, long-grieving residents, mysterious disappearances and ghostly graveyard sightings. The 2012 film adaptation, starring “Harry Potter” alum Daniel Radcliffe, leaned into the material and added the flair that cinema allows. The blue-gray cold of an ancient, dormant house; the sickening creak of floorboards and doors in seemingly empty rooms; the trickery of a far-off specter moving slowly out of frame.
The theatrical adaptation, written by Stephen Mallatratt, has proven the most popular. A staple in London since 1989, the show has become a favorite of small theater companies in the U.S., partly because of its cast size (two actors) and its set requirements (it takes place on the bare stage of a theater).
Yet, it's also the clever setup that continually delights audiences 30 years on. Mallatratt takes Hill’s original story, and gives it a meta-theatrical frame. At the D'Youville Kavinoky Theatre, Arthur Kipps (David Lundy), the young British solicitor who was sent to the swampy, remote Eel Marsh to settle the estate of a reclusive widow, is now middle-aged and traumatized by his ghostly encounter with the titular woman decades earlier. He hires an actor (Peter Horn) to help in the recitation of a thick manuscript in hopes it will exorcise the pain, guilt and grief he has carried with him. The actor essentially becomes Kipps in this telling, while Kipps plays the other characters he encountered during his haunting journey.
In any production of “The Woman in Black,” the look and feel of the stage and its surroundings plays a huge role in the success of the story. We’re meant to feel like we're in a Victorian-era London theater. I’ve seen this show in nontraditional spaces, and it really deflates the whole experience. This Kavinoky production, directed with great care by Kyle Loconti, benefits immensely from the beauty of the house, with its balcony, opera boxes and classic adornments.
And since the play is essentially a retelling of past events, the performances of the leading men are essential to make this show click. Lundy and Horn are doing excellent work, both in the humorous exchanges between an actor trying to coax theatricality from a bumbling newbie, and in the creation of the sense of mystery and wonder that accompanies the trek into the foggy English night.
Though Mallatratt’s script has a tendency to drone on, and even being familiar with the material can leave you scratching your head over the details of the spectral woman and her motivations. Loconti seems to have prioritized the vintage charm, and not so much the slow build of tension and suspense required to make this show truly unsettling. You might not leave frightened, or rattled, but that’s no matter. It’s still a great ghost story told with aplomb; in other words, a cozy night at the theater.
“The Woman in Black”
3 stars (out of 4)
Presented through Nov. 21 at the D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Must provide proof of Covid-19 vaccination for entry. Tickets are $45 general, $40 for ages 65 and older via kavinokytheatre.com/tickets.