“The Woman in Black”
8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 1. $22-$33. Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-422-8369, theatreinthesquare.com.
Bottom line: A stylishly appointed retelling of an oft-produced thriller.
By Bert Osborne
Think about it in movie terms. The first time you experience Janet Leigh’s scary shower scene in “Psycho,” for example, that’s one thing. The second or 10th time you see it, the general thrill may not be gone, but the element of surprise sure is. That original shock value can never be replicated.
Basically, a twist ending only works once. But as “The Sixth Sense” proved, sometimes there are benefits to repeat viewings of a piece. Even with the mystery solved, you could appreciate some of the narrative and stylistic hints and clues you missed before.
At first flush, Stephen Mallatratt’s supernatural thriller “The Woman in Black” (based on a novel by Susan Hill) would seem a rather tired choice of material for Marietta’s Theatre in the Square.
Or maybe it’s simply that this British ghost story has been too oft-told of late, with three other local renditions in the last six years (at ART Station, the Academy and Red Clay).
Uninitiated members of the audience are in for a chilling treat. But the real measure of director Jessica Phelps West’s distinguished Square staging is how it rewards those who’ve come back for another helping because they’ll already know how the story ends and everything else that transpires along the way.
If the play’s final destination is a foregone conclusion, the process of getting there becomes its raison d’etre.
West’s impeccable production design creates a richly atmospheric tone that the lower-budgeted Academy and Red Clay mountings lacked (I didn’t see ART Station’s version). The special effects alone — including suspiciously rocking chairs, moving chandeliers and doors that open or close by themselves — are fairly nifty.
Seamus M. Bourne’s scenery is deceptively sparse, although he makes excellent use of an area at the back of the stage (concealed behind black curtains during much of the action).
Christopher Bartelski’s soundtrack is alternately subtle (creaking floors, ticking clocks) and startling (sudden shrieks or other bumps in the night). Rob Dillard’s moody lighting is highly effective in scenes where certain apparitions are the most faintly visible.
Of course, the plot remains the same.
A retired London solicitor, haunted by an “evil” event from his past, hopes to put the nightmare behind him once and for all, by committing his story to paper and acting it out for an audience.
To that end, he enlists a young actor to help rehearse and present the piece.
The great David Milford (late of the Square’s “All the King’s Men”) plays the older man, which lends an amusing irony to the character’s insistence that he isn’t inclined to performing. With minor changes of costume, Milford adopts an array of dialects and mannerisms to expertly portray a sniffling office clerk, a laconic coach driver and a priggish land baron, among other walks of life.
Gil Brady (who’s new to town) is slightly stiffer in the younger, “straight man” role. Still, unlike watching a movie over again, casting different actors is all it really takes to give a familiar play a different feel.
With eerie style to spare, West’s “Woman in Black” could be a definitive version of the popular suspense drama. Now more than ever, though, you can definitely relate to the old man’s need to tell his story well and lay it to rest already.