"The Woman in Black" Leaves You, as It Should, in the Dark

One of the stars in PICT Classic Theatre's production of "The Woman in Black" is lighting designer, Keith A. Traux. He's called upon to provide all the shadowy menace usually associated with a ghost story. This he does quite superbly with splashes of light when needed in alternate scenes that take place outside the gloomy manor house set apart in the marshes of a small coastal village in England.

Things start off pleasantly and matter-of-factly for Arthur Kipps, a solicitor asked to take a train to the isolated village to attend the funeral on behalf his law firm and go through the papers and documents of a recently deceased matron who lived alone in the manse for years.

For a man who doesn't believe in ghosts Kipps struggles with the strange, irrational encounters he observes, first while attending the funeral service, then later when he's asked to spend some time in the dead woman's house, separated from the mainland by a causeway that tides over twice a day, making  access and egress impossible. What happens there shocks the man's psyche so intensely, he's unable to get the echoes of the experiences out of his mind.

Years later, while still haunted by his preternatural encounters, he devises a method by which he hopes to exorcise his demons. He enlists the help of an experienced actor who will assist him in performing a play he's written that captures the horrors he's seen and felt. His intended audience is a gathering of friend and relatives who will be informed of his back story theatrically. Director Alan Stanford calls on Martin Giles and James Fitzgerald, two of Pittsburgh's most highly respected and experienced actors, to fill the roles of the solicitor and the Thespian. 

James Fitzgerald and Martin Giles in "The Woman in Black" Credit: Keith A Truax

The two men work very well together, with Fitzgerald providing the show's anchor as The Actor, which gives Giles free rein to riff like a jazz musician playing the stable of characters written into the play-within-the-play. At the outset, Fitzgerald starts off as a rather haughty and critical actor disparaging Kipps' text and skill at playwrighting. This supercilious attitude us soon eroded as the tale unfolds and he becomes more and more engulfed in the eerie and mysterious turns of events.

The original story was a Gothic horror novel penned by Susan Hill in 1983. Daniel Ratcliffe stared in a 2012 film adaptation of the same title, and, in 1987, English actor Stephen Mallatratt adapted it for the stage with his play-within - play device. The show has gone on to be the second longest-running play in the history of the West End, after Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap.

In PICT's production, Giles and Fiztgerald soften their English accents as they narrate the tale written in the reserved, decorous style sometimes associated with the British and novels of authors like Poe and Emily Bronte. As they prowl the copious stage from center to side, most of the dialogue is comprehensible to the American ear and audible, save for one moment or two near the end of the second act where I could not make out what Fitzgerald was saying.

Domenico Lagamba's spare but effective set included a mysterious fuchsia door built into a mauve wall that allows the mind to roam and envision all sorts of nebulous images. Sound designer Nick Depinto gives the various ambient settings an aural shot in the arm (make that ear), with his realistic sound effects of trains rolling along their tracks, crows cawing in the manor graveyard and more.

James Fitzgerald and Martin Giles in "The Woman in Black" Credit: Keith A Truax

Those with a taste for a surprise ending are in for a treat here. It may not be what you're expecting and, while it does provide closure, it also opens new doors to future possibilities as well.

“The Woman in Black” a production of PICT Classic Theatre, is at the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED, 4802 Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh, through Saturday November 23 For tickets and information, go to www.picttheatre.org.