Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

The Woman in Black

Jered McLenigan and Dan Kern
The Woman in Black is a ghost story told with imagination and ingenuity. Director James J. Christy and his technical staff work hard to conjure up a convincing spirit world on the stage of Act II Playhouse. While it's not as scary as it should be—the story isn't engrossing enough, and a few elements broke the spell for me—it's still a noble and admirable effort.

Susan Hill's 1983 novel tells the story of a British lawyer who attends a client's funeral where he sees an apparition of a black-clad woman. He decides to investigate: who is being haunted, and why? And why does everyone he asks seem to be afraid to tell him the truth? His quest takes him to an isolated mansion filled with things that go bump in the night. Stephen Mallatratt's stage adaptation, which has been running continuously in London's West End since 1989, is presented as a play within a play, as the lawyer joins with a professional actor to find a way to tell the world this story which has been burdening him for years.

Act II's production is full of excellent production values. There's shadowy lighting from James Leitner, a swirling, unsettling sound design from Christopher Colucci, and low-key but effective sets by Daniel Boylen. Christy and his actors take their spookiness very seriously: even though it's a self-consciously old-fashioned theatrical production with actors playing multiple roles, the story isn't played for laughs like The 39 Steps. Instead, it's treated, quite correctly, as a matter of life or death. And the acting is superb. It's a pleasure to see Dan Kern play about half a dozen characters, jumping from accent to accent without losing a sense of solemn dignity. (Dialect coach Hazel Bowers deserves credit, too.) And Jered McLenigan is marvelous in the way he trembles physically and verbally at terror after terror. This is one committed, persuasive actor. (An uncredited Mary Lee Bednarek slithers around in the background in the title role.)

But did The Woman in Black scare me? Alas, no. That's probably because, while the production works carefully to create an eerie atmosphere, things kept annoying me and pulling me out of the story. During the opening scenes, when we're supposedly in a theatre watching the actors rehearse (establishing the play within a play concept), harsh overhead floodlights are used—and those lights hurt my eyes so much that I had a hard time concentrating on the plot for much of the first act. In addition, Christy makes some odd staging choices that diffuse the tension, such as having the actors deliver their lines from the theatre's aisles, where the audience can't see the actors without turning around uncomfortably in their seats. In one scene, the dialogue asks us to focus on the actors in the aisles while our attention is still drawn to the stage, where we watch stagehands setting up the next scene. When that scene finally comes, what was supposed to surprise the characters doesn't surprise the audience. And finally, there's the plot itself, which is meant to evoke a Gothic horror novel but has a few too many obvious seams. It ends with a cheaply sentimental plot development, asking the audience to feel bad about the deaths of characters we haven't even heard of before. And the last line of the play is supposed to add a spooky twist—but that twist was hinted at earlier, so the line has no impact.

"Too corny," said the woman next to me at the end of the night. At times, yes. But if The Woman in Black doesn't hit the horrific heights it shoots for, it's still a well-executed piece of work.

The Woman in Black runs through November 24, 2013, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Tickets are $23 - $34, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200 or online at

Photo: Mark Garvin

-- Tim Dunleavy

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