Craving a primal scream these days? “The Woman in Black” is humbly and harrowingly at your service.

The long-running West End ghost play, which has inspired similarly spontaneous outbursts on London’s West End for 30 years, is now haunting Spoleto Festival USA 2021, having slipped in through a sort of pandemic portal.

Well, sure, it’s literally here due to its temporary COVID-19 closure at New York City’s McKittrick Hotel, where it was enjoying an acclaimed six-week run before the lockdown. The good news is that the hiatus created an opportunity for the production, which is directed by Robin Herford, to land in the festival lineup. It now inhabits Festival Hall with staggered socially distanced pods and a spare, ever inventive set by Michael Holt.

'The Woman in Black'

Nick Owen (left) and Peter Bradley perform in the ghost play “The Woman in Black,” Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel. Photo: Leigh Webber. Spoleto Festival USA/provided.

But are we sure that’s really how the titular, terrifying black-garbed femme fatale who is oft-referenced in the work made its way to Charleston? After all, this centuries-old city is known for plenty of its own roaming apparitions. And they are, naturally, as hospitable as the next Charlestonian to wanderers from parts unknown.

This visitor wafts in from across the pond. Based on the 1983 British novel by Susan Hill, “The Woman in Black” was adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt, who whittled it down to two main characters. They are a solicitor by the name of Arthur Kipps (Peter Bradley) and a young actor (Nick Owen), whom Kipps has enlisted to help him put down for posterity an eerie interlude from his younger years so he “may sleep at night.”

The two delve deeper and deeper into the unnerving goings on at Eel Marsh House, the property of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. The young Kipps had been dispatched by his law firm to the town of Crythin Gifford on the north coast of England to sort through her papers.

It’s a play within a play, with the actor trying in vain to instruct his fact-focused client on dramatic craft to best share his tale. A successful storyteller, he repeats, conjures reality by way of imagination. Bobbing on a trunk becomes a ride on a horse-drawn carriage. Gazing at an expansive space before becomes Nine Lives Causeway, on which the estate sits.

Like paranormal phenomena, the crux of a tale well told lies as much in what is perceived as much as in what is actually seen. The key is leveraging imagination, the actor underscores repeatedly, until finally giving up and taking the role himself. And so with the likes of a clothes rack, said trunk and a loyal if invisible dog named Spider, we tap into our own imaginations, which become every bit as culpable in our increasing unease.

Commanding, energetic performances propel the suspense, with Owen whipping up escalating intrigue and Bradley weaving deftly in and out of numerous characters. Still, a star of this show is the playwright, Stephen Mallatratt. Creating gasps of terror in a traditional playhouse is a supernatural enterprise, and he methodically constructs a slow, subtle build, doing so as much by what is not shared as by what is.

What are those askance looks from the townspeople? Why can’t he find an assistant to help with all that paper sorting? From exactly where will the next fright erupt? 

It must be noted that while we all understand the vagaries of the pandemic to serve up this engaging chestnut, the acoustics in Festival Hall at times challenged. Perhaps this was due to spaced-out seating in the cavernous, concrete-floored venue. And the production is certainly a far shriek from its cozy pub home at The McKittrick Hotel, which likely created a different intimacy.

Instead, some audience members where I was seated had to strain to catch the dialogue. It may well be the performers had to push to reach to the back of the house, too, thus changing that measured, intimate unfolding of the tale.

Charleston Spoleto chamber music performers pair programs with drinks to sip

Nonetheless, there were ample starts and subsequent twitters as the crowd reacted and recovered from things that go bump and creak and screech in the night. The ride home from the show took on a creepy aspect, too, as we ventured out, amidst Charleston’s old homes and darkened corners, which may well be the time-testing domain of our own roving souls.

Follow our full coverage of Spoleto Festival USA 2021 here.

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