Since the invention of television and the VCR, we've all but lost the art of the well-told ghost story, the sort that keeps you up late at night searching the darkness for moving shadows. After all, who wants to compete with such contemporary myths as Jason hacking up campers in his hockey mask, Hannibal Lecter cooking up livers with a nice chianti or a shock-haired Chucky slicing up unwanted playmates? But Alley director John Tyson is clearly not one to be intimidated by modern technology. His production of Stephen Mallatratt's Victorian ghost tale The Woman in Black is every bit as creepy as any madman lurking across your TV.
Adapted from the novel by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black starts off deceptively benign. A bowler-hat-wearing lawyer named Kipps (Noble Shropshire) has hired an actor (John Feltch) to help him prepare for a public reading. They meet for the first time in an empty theater to begin "rehearsals." Set designer Kevin Rigdon has turned the Alley's modern stage into an aging and appropriately spooky venue. Dark drapes sweep down and across the playing area; heavy braided ropes and man-sized counterweights hang forebodingly from above; dirty red bricks and faded gray boxes are piled in the corners. It all looks very 19th century and very ghostly.
In the middle of this barren stage stands the dull and distinguished Kipps. Dressed in a proper gray suit and a starched white shirt, his back as stiff as a board, he carefully recites from his own enormously thick manuscript. It's a true tale that he insists must be told so that he "might sleep without nightmares."
The Woman in Black
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Through Sunday, August 12; 713-228-8421. $17
Try as he might, the actor is unable to inspire anything more than a soporific monotone from the well-intentioned lawyer, who gets more nervous with each adjustment that the histrionic, energetic actor attempts to make. In the end, they decide to switch places: The actor will play Kipps at the reading, and Kipps will assume all the supporting parts. That way people will actually sit through the thick tale that's so darn important. But first the pair must rehearse, and as they do, an unsettling story begins to take shape.
First, the actor does what any good ghost-story teller would: He dims the lights and adds sound effects. Storms swirl; morning birds chirp; the clippity clop of horses' hooves brings a carriage ride to life. Kipps is amazed, though unnerved, by the realistic effects. It all takes him back to the beginnings of his story, when he first arrived at the tiny English village where he'd been hired to go over the affairs of Alice Drablow. The strange old woman had died alone, after living for years in a gray house that nobody in town would speak about.
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The actor is delighted with himself for creating such gothic-sized goose bumps in Kipps, and he insists with a flourish that the next day they will run through the whole story, from beginning to end. Kipps, who is filled with nervous gratitude, promises to bring a surprise. The surprise, of course, ends up being more than either man bargained for.
Because the first act is mostly setup, it runs a bit slow, but the second-act payoff is worth the price. It's as disturbing as a scary story gets. When the actor comes back the next day, all dressed in gray and looking like a more debonair Kipps, it's clear that he's in for the spook of his life. He acts out Kipps taking a carriage ride to an apparently haunted house. A woman screams, a child cries out; in the house, a chair rocks on its own. All this appears to be mere theatrics, but the gap between acting and real life begins to narrow when the actor sees the ghost that has haunted Kipps all these years. Assuming the specter is Kipps's "surprise," the actor is only mildly undone, though he will soon become more disturbed as he falls deeper into the telling of the tale.
In the end, the line between fiction and reality has been completely erased, and that, of course, is the point to any well-told tale -- the story should seem so real that the world changes in its wake. Feltch, with his gorgeously sonorous voice booming through the theater, is every bit the big-gestured actor. And Shropshire's crusty, curt and pinched Kipps catches on quickly and becomes the perfect supporting player. He's the sleepy carriage driver, the wise town banker and the increasingly uplifted real-life Kipps, who watches as his burden is transferred from his shoulders to the actor's.
And the best part of this ghost tale? The last wicked moment is likely to creep into bed with you late at night.