Many of the most recent horror films seem to be more and more about the gore. Bloody and dismembered limbs? Check. A man chasing someone with an axe or chainsaw? Check. But what about the horror that doesn’t involve the gore? The kind that leaves you with chills that sink into your skin as you watch the story unfold. Williamston Theatre’s eighth season opens with a show that does just that, “The Woman in Black.”
Written by Stephen Mallatratt, and based on the novel by Susan Hill, the nearly two-hour play doesn’t use any cheap thrills. Trust me, it doesn’t need them. There are many reasons why this show is the second longest-running non-musical play in London’s West End, and fake blood isn’t one of them.
The show opens in early 19th century London with Mr. Arthur Kipps (John Seibert) reading through his manuscript to a room of one, with a man Kipps has come to to help tell his tale called The Actor (Aral Gribble). As Kipps struggles, and I mean really struggles, The Actor keeps telling him to draw on his emotions and use his imagination, something that this show does unbelievably well. It is soon decided that The Actor will play the young Kipps in the performance and that present-day Kipps will play everyone else, and narrate. The real story begins once The Actor becomes the young Mr. Kipps.
The young Kipps (played by The Actor), a solicitor, must journey from his home in London to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow, in Crythin Gifford and go through her personal papers. At Mrs. Drablow’s funeral Kipps gets his first sighting of the woman in black, with a face that’s wasted away. No one else seems to have seen her, and all get a little, well, strange, when he mentions seeing her. Only once he’s begun to go through Mrs. Drablow’s personal items back at her isolated home does he discover who the woman in black actually is, and why no one wants to discuss her. And she is not a happy or friendly spirit, she’s one out for revenge, willing to haunt and terrorize this sleepy town in the process.
Both Gribble and Seibert play Kipps, as the young man and present-day, as one living with so much fear that there are moments when you can’t help but stare in awe. The fear oozes out of both of them, everywhere from the looks in their eyes to their mannerisms. Kipps is in no way a simple man and Gribble and Seibert show that. Seibert also has the task of playing every other character in Kipps’ monologue, and he does so with ease, adding personality and accent changes. Costume designer April Townsend adds coats, hats and pipe to differentiate between characters. Gribble and Seibert also have brief moments to show off their respective characters lighter sides, and those moments don’t make the scare any less scary but peel back the characters layers.
With twists and turns that will leave you questioning every moment, including the surprise ending, director Tobin Hissong swiftly moves scenes between the play itself and the play-within-the-play. Hissong has the actors use every single inch of the renovated space and it works wonderfully. The trio of scenic designer Bartley H. Bauer, lighting designer Daniel C. Walker and sound designer Julia Garlotte, add layer upon layer of the show’s complexity.
At times the terror in “The Woman in Black” will come out of nowhere, but when it does it holds on, proving that the things that go bump in the night can be much more terrifying than anything Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger do.