“The Woman in Black” is a spine-tingling theatrical thriller

A man in a dark room holding a candle
The Woman in Black at McCarter Theatre Center. Photo by Jenny Anderson
David Acton sitting in a chair and Ben Porter standing and holding a rocks glass.
The Woman in Black at McCarter Theatre Center. (LtoR) David Acton and Ben Porter. Photo by Jenny Anderson

Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman in Black, adapted from the novel by Susan Hill, has cast its sinister spell over West End audiences for thirty-four years until it closed earlier this year, the longest-running play in British stage history. When I saw it in London some three decades ago, it scared the living hell out of me. It has now come to roost at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, and it has lost none of its chill-inducing skill.

Directed by Robin Herford, who directed the original London production, The Woman in Black weaves a story of tragedy in the English marshlands. It involves Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor who is sent to winnow through the papers of a recently deceased client. When we meet Kipps, he is an older man relating his story to an actor who he hopes will mold his story into a form that can be told to others, thus hopefully releasing him from a nightmarish burden borne over many years. What we see is the actor taking the part of the younger Kipps in telling the story, while the older Kipps takes on the parts of all others with whom he came in contact. The play’s action flips between showing Kipps’ story and the rehearsal of his story in an old, unused theater.

The production is unique in that three actors share the two roles in rotation. At the performance I attended, Antony Eden played the actor/young Kipps, while Ben Porter played the older Kipps. (The third actor, David Acton, appeared during an audience talk-back after the performance with his fellow actors.)

I cannot, of course, say much about what transpires during the course of the play, as it would spoil the audience’s experience of the story. Suffice it to say that Michael Holt’s spooky set design, combined with the lighting design of Anshuman Bhatia and the noteworthy sound design of Rob Mead and Sebastian Frost, creates an overall atmosphere of growing dread.

The Woman in Black does a good job of starting slow, letting the foreboding of what might come grow bit by bit until the audience and actors alike are sharing the dread of each new revelation. A show designed to invoke horror as a healthy catharsis for its audience, it definitely delivers. Even knowing the play from a former viewing, it still terrified me. For those who like a good thrill in the theater, I can highly recommend taking the trip to Princeton to see McCarter Theatre Center’s production of The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center at the Matthews Theatre in Princeton through October 29th. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to mccarter.org or call 609-258-2787.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has recently been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre reviewers. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.