On Stage: Mystery Woman

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Keegan’s ‘The Woman in Black’ chills, thrills.
Photos by Cameron Whitman

Matthew Keenan

The Woman in Black” scaring audiences at the Keegan Theatre has all the familiar horror story themes — a dark mysterious house with unexplained sounds, a thick, dangerous fog across the marsh where the lonely house sits, frightened villagers unwilling to talk about the tragic mystery surrounding the house and the eerie “Woman in Black” no one wants to see or admit exists.

It is all a familiar concoction but it effectively frightens Keegan audiences with a clever blending of the theater going uncomfortably black, and then flashing instantaneous sightings of the veiled woman with a wasted face, covered by spooky sound effects, then going black again and then moving on with the story. The eerie techniques startle in the way someone jumping out of the dark and shouting “boo” can be frightening. There were times when people in the Keegan audience screamed.

Some people apparently like to be frightened, which probably explains why “The Woman in Black” has run for more than 20 years playing in London’s West End. It is the second-longest running non-musical to Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.”

Robert Leembruggen and Matthew Keenan

The play by Stephen Mallatratt, adapted from a novel by Susan Hill, is about the mysterious Eel March House, located in the middle of a marsh and isolated at high tide. In the story, a solicitor is sent to attend the funeral of client Alice Drablow who lived in the house in the small village of Crithen Gifford and to sort through her papers.

The two actors — Matthew Keenan and Robert Leembruggen — who perform all the roles in the play within a play effectively and smoothly make the transitions believable. The solicitor sees a flash of the “Woman in Black” at the funeral and at other places as his work progresses. Colin Smith and Mark A. Rhea, the directors, deftly pace and control the action through Michael Innocenti’s inspired light design and Tony Angelini’s manipulation of the important sound design that dominates the action with several events occurring only through off-stage sound effects.

The story progresses with an unexplained moving rocking chair and a child’s nursery, along with a box of letters that reveals the terrible secret of the “Woman in Black.” It is, of course, a dark, family tragedy of horror and death that eerily dominates the cramped space of the Keegan Theatre.

At the end of the play, when the two actors appear on stage to accept the applause of the audience, the actor portraying “The Woman in Black” doesn’t appear. Neither is she given an acting credit in the playbill. It is as if she didn’t really exist.

The Woman in Black” continues through Nov. 30 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW, $30 and $35, available at 703-892-0202 and online here.

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