It's a Mystery

At the Ensemble and Main Street, death is summer fun

But disturbing portents and veiled warnings beset the lawyer, who of course winds up staying in the widow's gloomy, isolated house and investigating its secrets. Most mysterious is the title character, a wasted woman with a white face who is wont to appear silently and leave behind quivering observers. Kipps sees her first at the widow's gravesite, but her point is not made quite so easily as that.

Without performers as skilled as Rodney Walsworth and George Brock, the simple setting and chilling story would be only a pale piece of Poe or a wisp of Wilkie Collins. Deliberately wooden as Kipps, Walsworth not only makes the most of that role but slips under the skin of a variety of other characters of various ages and accents. Brock, the unnamed actor whom Kipps meets, and who then plays the part of Kipps during the bulk of the story, is almost as compelling sorting out the widow's papers as he is shrinking in dread at disembodied howls in the distance.

Equally important is the subtle direction of Patti Bean, the moody lighting by Kirk Markley and the evocative sound effects, without which it would be difficult to propel a Houston audience in midsummer onto a chill, misty marsh in (ahem)shire.

With these assets and a few props, an almost bare stage becomes a pub, a graveyard, a locked room, a carriage driven by a wordless yokel. The Woman in Black aptly follows the unnamed actor's instructions to "draw upon your emotions, and upon our imaginations."

Who Killed Hazel Patton? plays through August 10 at the Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 520-0055; The Woman in Black plays through July 24 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706.

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