Review: ‘The Woman in Black’ — are you scared yet?

Listen
 Jered McLenigan and Dan Kern in the ActII Playhouse production of

Jered McLenigan and Dan Kern in the ActII Playhouse production of "The Woman in Black." (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Shouldn’t “The Woman in Black” send chills through you? I thought that’s what this theatrical ghost story was all about, like the best of those told ’round the old campfire. The play is certainly billed as a scare show, its apparent attraction in London. “The Woman in Black” has been playing there since 1989, topped in endurance only by “The Mousetrap.”

I never saw it until the other night at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, where I found James J. Christy’s production to be a little sleepy in the first act and a lot forced in the second. Christy moves his characters around the intimate theater with all the requisite scare tactics: the howls and screams and stomping horses of Christopher Colucci’s sound design and the flashes of James Leitner’s lighting.

So you get all the trite but not the fright, because the production’s effects are too unfocused to instill fear. The scares here are hard to locate largely because the sudden bright lighting comes from all over – you don’t know where to look. This also happens when Christy sends his characters to deliver sometimes fear-provoking lines along the side-aisles of the theater, and it’s hard to immediately place the actors. I would’ve turned on my GPS, but you know about cell phones in the theater.

In one ham-handed instance, when we’re supposed to be turning to witness a spoken encounter at one side of the auditorium, the dim light on stage is just enough to show people preparing the furniture for an oncoming scare scene; why turn at all when that’s the more active proceeding?

So I found the scary part of this play wanting. The performance part wants for nothing, with veteran actor Dan Kern as the man who needs to tell the story of a terrible incident in his life and Jered McLenigan as the actor he hires to help shape a planned presentation of this information. That’s a skimpy set-up, as in most ghost stories I’ve ever heard; in this case, the man is planning the presentation of his horror for friends and relatives in the hope that the story will be exorcised from his psyche.

The play’s conceit has the man unable to tell the tale forcefully. So the actor tells it for him as the man plays all the peripheral roles. Kern and McLenigan are excellent as they negotiate all the starts and fits that come with the ghost-story genre. They pull it off with five different British Isles accents, all well delivered under the supervision of dialect coach Hazel Bowers. The accents are perhaps the most impressive part of the evening. The production’s power to create a scare should be._“The Woman in Black” runs through Nov. 24 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler. 215-654-0200 or www.act2.org.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.