Some mystery plays try to straddle the line between suspense and self-conscious humor. The Woman in Black makes no such compromises. It’s meant to be chilling, so if it fails, it fails spectacularly. Fortunately, Tom Eubanks’ new production at Elite Theatre, though not without its missteps, manages to create some legitimately spooky moments.
Adapted from the 1983 novel by Susan Hill, Stephen Mallatratt’s stage version is one of the longest-running shows in London’s West End — though not quite as enduring as Agatha Christie’s half-a-century-old murder mystery The Mousetrap. Hill’s novel was even made into a film earlier this year, starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe as an unlikely widower.
This production came into being when Elite’s original show, Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, was canceled due to illness. The Petit Playhouse’s cramped basement theater makes a perfect setting for this type of show: when the lights go out, it’s coal black.
The show starts off slowly with a frame story that eventually enhances the play’s themes, but mostly confuses early on. A retired solicitor, Mr. Kipps (Terry Fishman), visits an acting coach (Curtis Cline) to help polish his droning delivery of a real-life “ghost story.” He’s determined to share the tale with family and friends, and thereby purge the memories from his life. Mercifully, the two men trade places for the re-enactment, with the coach filling in as the young Kipps and the older man playing a multitude of supporting roles.
The rest of the play unfolds in flashback, tracing the young Kipps’ assignment to a remote English village to peruse private papers belonging to his firm’s deceased client. To his distress, the woman’s estate, marooned at the far end of a causeway often flooded by high tide, receives regular visits from an unearthly young woman. Before long, there are late-night creaks, unnerving shrieks and apparitions on the causeway.
What the cast and crew have managed to pull together here in a relatively short time deserves praise. There are, however, certain rough edges that no doubt would have been smoothed over given additional rehearsal time; small opening-night hiccups will likely ease as the production proceeds.
Fishman and Cline do an admirable job, though Fishman has the greater challenge of embodying several characters with an impressive array of accents. The script’s frequent change-ups and flashbacks make it difficult to track who he is at a given time. It’s a weakness of the production that these character shifts aren’t made more apparent through costumes and set. (When he wears a cutaway coat, Fishman has a way of holding his arms at his sides like a butler, regardless of the speaker’s class.) But Fishman’s grave, lined face and Cline’s appealing earnestness, gradually descending into horror, play well off each other.
Yet even with the actors’ strong performances, they seem at times to be caught in a vacuum. Though Cline’s instructor brags about the marvels of “recorded sound,” the production makes curiously little use of it, and employs it in odd, inconsistent ways. Sound effects cut off abruptly. Long scene changes, both in blackout and fully lit, kill the building momentum.
The eponymous Woman (Debbie Price), as played in this production, is undeniably corporeal. She storms on and off the stage, an aggressive, clattering presence long before we understand the reasons for her hauntings. It might have been wiser to let her glide into sight, or to manipulate lighting to let her lurk and vanish. Even so, her menacing appearances are sufficiently unnerving to make Cline’s lapse into hysteria credible.
The play ends, as any good ghost story does, on a grim note, with a satisfying reveal to fill in the gaps we missed. When the lights come up, you’ll be grateful — and perhaps look over your shoulder en route to the parking lot.
The Woman in Black through Sept. 16, presented by Elite Theatre at Petit Playhouse in Heritage Square, Oxnard. 483-5118 or www.elitetheatre.org.