Just in time for the Halloween season – and making its official debut on a Friday the 13th, yet – The Woman In Black comes to Coast Capital Playhouse (Oct. 13-28) in a White Rock Players Club production aimed at audiences who like bona fide chills with their live theatre.
The celebrated three-actor play, by Stephen Mallatratt (from a novella by Susan Hill), has translated a British fascination with nameless dread and morbid Victorianism into a 28-year London run, second only, for a non-musical, to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.
White Rock’s version features Eric Fortin and Harrison McDonald as the two main characters, with Sarah Lownes as the mysterious title figure.
It’s helmed by well-known Surrey actor Mike Busswood, who received Community Theatre Coalition nominations for his first try at directing, Sylvia (Surrey Little Theatre, 2014), and won best director this month in the 2016-17 awards for his second assignment for the company, The Dixie Swim Club (which also tied for best production).
The Woman In Black begins in a deserted Victorian theatre in England in 1907.
There, a lawyer, Arthur Kipps (Fortin), with the hired assistance of a young actor (McDonald), is staging a very unusual performance – a reading of Kipps’ manuscript recording events that occurred some 20 or 30 years earlier when Kipps was a young solicitor and visited the small market town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs. Drablow.
It was at the funeral that he first encountered the ‘woman in black’ – apparently the victim of a wasting disease – and was mystified by the reluctance of the villagers to discuss her presence.
In what evolves into a gripping re-enactment, the young actor becomes the younger Kipps, while Kipps narrates his story and plays all – or almost all – of the supporting characters.
Bit by bit, it becomes clear that Kipps has been the victim of horrifying experiences that still haunt him, and that while he has learned some of the secrets of Mrs. Drablow and her home, Eel Marsh House, he has paid a terrible price for his discoveries.
“I discovered the play a number of years ago at the (Theatre BC) provincial festival,” Busswood said.
“It was nice of (Players Club president) Josh Fuller to invite me to direct it, knowing my interest in the play. I was quite taken with the idea of doing a thriller and I’m fully intending to give the audience some scary moments.”
That said, Busswood noted that he’s not out to seriously traumatize anybody, just “startle them.”
“Nothing in this is going to terrify anybody,” he added. “Nowadays, I’d think this was good for kids 10 or up, unless you’ve raised them in a box. They see a lot worse in video games.”
Older audiences should enjoy the play, too, he said.
“It harkens back to an older style of theatre; a more visceral approach.”
It’s a piece in which acting – with a heavy assist from lighting cues and sound effects – can enlist the audience’s imagination to transform a theatre stage (“littered,” Busswood said, “with the detritus of past productions”) into every location described in the narrative.
“It’s what theatre is supposed to do – once you’ve suspended disbelief, you draw people into it, even though everybody is still aware that they’re sitting in their seats in a theatre,” Busswood said.
“It’s also a very intelligent play – it doesn’t belabour anything, doesn’t hit everybody over the head,” he added, noting that every twist and turn in the narrative proceeds from information already shared with the audience.
The production benefits from lighting design of Miles Lazkulich and the sound design of Gordon Gilmour, Busswood said.
“There are about a 100 cues for each right in the script,” he said.
Also helping the atmosphere are period costumes created by Laura MacKenzie and properties supervised by Naomi Mitchell.
“It’s a good team and I’m also very lucky to have the two actors who carry the bulk of the action. Eric was in The Last Lifeboat (at Surrey Little Theatre) – I think this is his second show – and Harrison has done four or five, so they’re both relative newcomers.
“It makes my life easier as a director – it’s nice to work with actors who still listen to what I have to say!”
The Woman In Black runs Oct. 13-28 at Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, with 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees on Oct. 15 and 22.
Tickets are $22, $19 for students and seniors and $10 for preview nights (Oct. 11 and 12).
For tickets, call 604-536-7535 or visit whiterockplayers.ca