Center Stage shy in a frightful task Review: 'The Woman in Black' is a ghost tale you can see right through.

March 27, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Stephen Mallatratt's ghost play, "The Woman in Black," is an unusual choice for Center Stage, not only because it is the theater's first thriller but also because it is merely an entertainment for entertainment's sake.

But even on that level, "The Woman in Black" -- though expertly adapted from Susan Hill's novel of the same name and proficiently produced -- falls short. It is a thriller that is ultimately too predictable to tingle the spine.

The plot concerns two men, an aging British lawyer named Kipps and the young actor he hires to help him tell -- and, he hopes, exorcise -- the story of a terrifying event that has haunted him for years. The setting is a down-at-the-heels Victorian theater that Kipps has rented and set designer Hugh Landwehr has made gloriously macabre, with a tattered curtain, faded gray proscenium arch and shrouded furniture that would be ghostly in any context.

Director Tim Vasen further accentuates the play's innate theatricality by having Jefferson Mays, as the actor, make his entrance from the audience, needling and coaching Michael Rudko's ill-at-ease Kipps on his performance. Soon after, they switch roles, with Mays enthusiastically portraying protagonist Kipps for the remainder of the evening, and Rudko taking all the other parts -- a task his character tackles with increasing confidence.

The tale they tell occurred early in Kipps' career, when the lawyer was sent to a remote part of England to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a reclusive widow. All the elements for a haunting are there. Not only is the countryside beset with sudden sea mists that completely obscure visibility, but the widow's property is regularly cut off from the rest of the land by the coming and going of the tide. More ominous yet, the villagers seem to recoil from the very mention of the widow's name.

To reveal more -- even about a play that is often too obvious -- would be unsporting. Rudko, with his long gray hair and edgy demeanor, is not only effective as a man who has been spooked for decades, but he delivers fine portrayals of characters ranging from a sniveling law clerk to the uncommunicative driver of the pony and cart that transport Kipps to the widow's desolate mansion.

Mays' young actor is initially cocky -- deliberately over-acting when he takes over the principal role. Later, when his character does indeed get scared out of his wits, Mays succumbs to a near-seizure that seems overwrought, but in general, he credibly conveys the sense of an innocent man painfully losing that innocence.

Technical effects are crucial to the production. Besides Landwehr's set, Mark McCullough's atmospheric lighting and, in particular, John Gromada's precise sound effects contribute so strongly to the overall impact, they are virtually characters in their own right.

Director Vasen has said he would be thrilled if his production made theatergoers scream. And indeed, there were some shrieks on opening night. But these were more on the order of a catch in the throat than outright terror.

Though Center Stage has generally shied away from producing hit Broadway plays, in this case the theater has chosen the London equivalent -- a show that has been running on the West End for nine years. "The Woman in Black," however, is hardly a strong enough entry to break precedent.

Mere popularity isn't the problem. "H.M.S. Pinafore," the delightful production still running in Center Stage's upstairs Head Theater, is one of the most popular operettas ever written, but it also has some heft. "The Woman in Black," however, is as thin as a specter and barely worth the otherwise impressive effort that has been extended in its behalf.

'Woman in Black'

Where: Center Stage, Pearl-stone Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays and 1 p.m. April 8; through April 19

Tickets: $10-$40

Call: 410-332-0033

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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