A night of reviewing a theatrical production doesn't usually leave me shuffling about the house in my pajamas, checking closets and under the bed for ghosts. But Susan Hill's thriller Woman in Black at Playcrafters Barn Theatre was just chilling enough to send me scurrying under the safety of my bedspread, eyes shut tight to whatever roamed my imagination.
Woman in Black opened this past weekend, and the titular ghost kept turning up in random places; I worried she'd be right behind me. Creepy sound effects of heartbeats and screaming contributed to the tense moments, as did the near darkness on stage when a character searched a haunted house. But regardless of how each audience member reacts to the frightening moments in the play, Woman in Black is incredibly well-done in terms of script quality, acting, and technical choices.
The first show of Playcrafters' 75th season, Woman includes one of my favorite imagination-invoking devices, the play within a play, and also has a surprise ending. The action follows a lawyer, Arthur Kipps (Jim Driscoll), who hires an actor (Tom Naab) to help him re-enact some chilling events from his past. Events continually shift between "reality," set in a theatre in London, and the rehearsal of the past events (in which The Actor plays Kipps and Kipps plays every other character).
In his tale, Kipps encountered a ghost, the Woman in Black, when he was settling the remote estate of an elderly recluse. By re-enacting these macabre events on stage, the lawyer hopes to exorcise the horrible memories and find the strength to move on with his life.
In very realistic and emotional expressiveness, the two actors made the story of Woman in Black not only believable but fun to watch. Their interactions were professional, in the sense that there was never an unnecessary pause in dialogue or action, funny (especially Driscoll's character developments), and natural, as if we really were seeing a rehearsal of a play and not the actual show. For the handful of characters he had to portray, Driscoll developed a unique accent and gait for each, all the time maintaining an effectively awkward sense about himself. (Kipps was a lawyer and not an actor, after all.) Naab had a very strong presence, a beautiful voice, and, most importantly, he looked like he was having a great time on stage.
My favorite moment occurred when the two actors were "riding" a horse-drawn trap (which was really a few benches stacked up on each other). Naab jumps out of the trap, and moves backward, to portray the buggy driving past. These imaginative choices contributed to the overall effectiveness of the show, and made the production more technically pleasing to watch.
In most cases, technical aspects of theatre (lighting, sound, scenery) were overshadowed by the dialogue and action occurring on stage. But with a script such as Woman, which calls for extremely accurate and noticeable lighting changes, sound effects (horse and trap noises), and scene shifts, the stage manager, board operators, and set run-crew have to be right on cue. For example, if the Actor snapped his fingers to signal the sound of a dog barking, and no sound came, that scene would lose its effectiveness. This performance had only a few sound slip-ups, such as an inner monologue beginning too early, but for the most part, I was extremely impressed with how smoothly technical transitions occurred.
The set design, which placed the proscenium stage behind a scrim (a piece of cloth that light can be shone through), was very clever on the designer's and director's parts. During one of the more haunting moments, the Actor investigated behind the scrim and encountered the Woman in Black, whose silhouette was thrown onto the cloth with a flashlight.
Playcrafters Barn Theatre in Moline has started its 75th season off with a thrilling and enjoyable production. Woman in Black is a beautifully written ghost story, and it's performed gracefully by Driscoll and Naab.
Woman in Black runs through January 25 at Playcrafters Barn Theatre in Moline. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $8. For reservations or more information, call 762-0330.