By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
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