By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Film Critic
In 1983, British novelist Susan Hill set her hand at writing a ghost story told in the Gothic style of bygone days. The result was The Woman in Black about a lawyer, Arthur Kipps, who once had to visit the isolated, remote home of a recently departed woman to go through her papers and close down the estate. But what happened instead was a sudden encounter with the supernatural. There were a lot of secrets in the creaky, corrupted old house and some with murderous consequences.
All-in-all your standard “haunted house” story – which was Hill’s intent. The novel’s been filmed a couple of times, the latest being a 2012 version starring Daniel Radcliffe.
The Woman in Black continues through November 23. WQED Studios, Oakland. 412-561-6000. www.picttheatre.org
But for our purposes – Stephen Mallatratt wrote an adaptation of the novel which opened in London in 1989. Somewhat amazingly, this stage version just celebrated 30 years of continuous performance, making it the second longest-running show in the West End. (Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap remains number one.)
So that’s a lot of people who, one way or another, have followed Kipps’ journey into the darkness … or maybe I should say a lot of British people. The Woman in Black hasn’t really made any sort of theatrical mark on this side of the Atlantic. Mallatratt’s version features a cast of two with little in the way or set or costumes – so how could a show with such low running costs never even attempt a New York opening?
And it hasn’t made much of a fuss inland either. The Woman in Black opens the new season at PICT Classic Theatre and, to the best of my admittedly dim recollection, this is only the second production to have played in Pittsburgh.
With this strong, adroitly presented PICT version, the mystery deepens even further. Director Alan Sanford and his cast, Martin Giles and James FitzGerald deliver the theatrical goods. Giles and FitzGerald are excellent performers who, with Sanford’s intelligent, crafty guidance, bring precision, definition and depth to the stage. Mallatratt’s script offers several opportunities for moments of bravura performance; Giles and FitzGerald don’t miss a one.
Keith A. Truax’ lighting works with Nick DePinto’s sound to place Hill’s story squarely on Domenico Lagamba’s appropriately sparse and effective set.
But still, even with all that, I can’t really say that Woman in Black feels entirely successful as a theatrical experience. Part of it may be a framing device Mallatratt invents. In Hill’s tale, Kipps has been haunted by earlier memories for so long he is compelled to finally write them down. In Mallatratt’s version, Kipps takes those writings and hires a theater and an actor with the aim to invite his family and friends to watch the story acted out. So here the hired actor (FitzGerald) will play Kipps while Kipps (Giles) will play all the other characters in the story.
It seems a needless layer of artifice coming between the audience and the tale, and that only reinforces the feeling that what’s going on onstage is two people reading us a story. I think maybe the biggest reason Woman in Black is a bigger hit over in jolly olde England is that, unlike in the UK, American audiences don’t have a theatrical history where the telling of the story is as important as the story being told. It could be a cliché but it seems to me that there is a higher appreciation of language for language sake on that side of the pond.
Or maybe I’ve just watched too much Masterpiece Theatre in my life. The Woman in Black does pick up some steam in the second act, but even with as polished as this PICT production is, it does sometimes feel as remote as the isolated house it’s set in.