Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Reviews: New Moon Shines With WOMAN IN BLACK

Nothing satisfies as much on a chilly night as a good, old-fashioned ghost story - and when the chills along one's spine match those outside the theatre, it's fairly certain that the production has accomplished its shuddery goals. Moreover, New Moon Theatre Company's THE WOMAN IN BLACK, taken from a 1983 horror novella by Susan Hill and directed with a sure (or maybe shaky) hand by Justin Asher, has the sort of title that appeals - at least, to me. I've always liked titles that link a mysterious woman garbed in a specific color. I recall the Gothic, Wilkie Collins' mystery THE WOMAN IN WHITE (also the Eleanor Parker/Alexis Smith film version, courtesy of Warner Brothers); and how many times have I seen an alluring Hillary Brooke as THE WOMAN IN GREEN, a mid-1940's Basil Rathbone/"Sherlock Holmes" thriller from Universal Studios? I also am willing to suspend my "disbelief" when there's a palpable ghost story unfolding - and how many really good ones are there? (Paramount's THE UNINVITED, based on a novel by Dorothy McCardle and starring Ray Milland, has not just one, but TWO ghosts; it's one of the best of the genre. Of course, , there was Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS, based on THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James and starring Deborah Kerr as a spinsterish governess who may - or may not - be seeing ghosts; and more recently, THE SIXTH SENSE and THE OTHERS have kept viewers cowering in their seats. Indeed, Daniel Radcliffe also starred in a film version of this very work a couple of years back.) I am happy to report that this production (alas, in its final weekend) also prompts "goose bumps."

The difference here, at least in the adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt, is that the events unfold by way of a play within a play - utilizing two major characters. Initially, a nonprofessional has enlisted the aid of a professional actor help him find a way to tell a story, a process which he feels will help him to unburden himself to his family and serve as a means of exorcizing some personal "demons." What follows is truly a tale of terror: The nonprofessional, a lawyer named "Kipps," recalls how, early in his career, he was sent to settle the estate of an elderly woman; and from the moment he alone sets foot upon the isolated, marshy estate, separated from the mainland by a treacherous causeway, he finds his confidence and skepticism shaken by the fleeting appearance of a "woman in black." As he immerses himself in the yellowing letters of a trunk, he begins to discover bits and pieces of a nightmarish puzzle - a shamed unwed mother, a conflict between sisters, death in the marshes; and casting her ominous shadow over all is the specter of a veiled and agonized specter.

In a small performing area like Theatre Works, this could invite a good bit of unsolicited laughter - except for the fact that every aspect of the production works. First and foremost, there is a beautifully written, evocative script; the poetic, moody dialogue and narrative reminded me of works such as William Rose Benet's "The Skater of Ghost Lake" (as good a supernatural poem as I've ever read). Second, there are two exceptional actors who skillfully handle multiple roles: Gabe Beutel-Gunn (he resembles the actor Dan Stevens, who starred as the ill-fated "Matthew" in DOWNTON ABBEY), who segues beautifully from the "actor" to the younger "Kipps," and whose gradual unraveling throughout the play is entirely convincing; and James Dale Green, whose "nonprofessional" disperses into a number of different characters (all with different accents and dispositions) and who becomes the narrator himself (he handles this especially well).

Gene Elliott's Sound Design deserves special praise: Whether it's the sound of a busy London street, the creaking of a chair, the clopping of horses' hooves - it's perfectly cued and presented. The musical background is ominous; the lighting design and execution couldn't be better; and the set design and construction make the most out of the limited space (a black scrim hangs before a graveyard/nursery/furnishings - and the imagination actually does most of the work). Overseeing all of this is the multitalented Justin Asher, who is every bit as talented off stage as he has proven to be on. Photo courtesy of the program cover. Through November 9.

Related Articles View More Memphis Stories

From This Author - Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)