Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: 'The Woman in Black'

Act 2 turns this mere entertainment into a bone-chilling frightfest of horror and supernatural vengeance.

Review: ‘The Woman in Black’

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By Jim Rutter


Want to know the second best thing about Act 2’s production of The Woman in Black? Despite casting two of Philadelphia’s finest actors, it never pretends to be anything more than what its subtitle proclaims: a ghost play. Like Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap—the only show on London’s West End that exceeds The Woman in Black’s 24-year run—it simply asks its audience to sit back, relax, and enjoy.

Or, in this case, sit back, curl up, and be terrified.

Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation adds a twist to Susan Hill’s novella: nightmares have plagued aging solicitor Arthur Kipps (Dan Kern) since he handled the estate of Alice Drablow as a young man. He must tell his story, so family and friends understand the misfortune of his life. To that end, he hires an actor (Jered McLenigan) who convinces him to turn a boring five hour lecture into a story that could rivet in performance.

And there’s the best thing about Act 2’s production. Like the play-within-a-play script demands, McLenigan and Kern throw themselves into their roles, enabling Act 2 to turns this mere entertainment into a bone-chilling frightfest of horror and supernatural vengeance.

The pair delivers a masterclass of characterizations, McLenigan engaging through twisted, eerie monologues and Kern astounding in his quick transitions through a half-dozen roles (hat tip to Hazel Bowers for coaching the sharp dialects).

James J. Christy’s direction employs the whole of Act 2’s 130-seat space. His actors run up or appear at the tops of aisles, fog effuses through the rows, James Leitner’s flickering lighting fragments the space and Christopher Colucci’s sound design of screaming children, terrified horses and barking dogs pierces the air. Slowly, the production becomes intimate and immersive; transporting the audience to a marsh in Northern England, convincing us of horrific deaths and wasted flesh.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” McLenigan tells us as he reenacts the role of young Arthur Kipps. At Act 2, you will. And there’s nothing second best about a production that manages that.


The Woman in Black. Presented through Nov. 24 at Act 2 Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave. Ambler. Tickets: $23 to $34. Information: 215-654-0200 or act2.org 

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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