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2017-09-13 / Featured / News

“The Woman in Black” haunts Swift Creek Mill Theatre

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


In "The Woman in Black," Matt Hackman (left) plays a young actor who helps dramatize the ghostly recollections of a lawyer, played by Bill Blair (right). 
ASH DANIEL In "The Woman in Black," Matt Hackman (left) plays a young actor who helps dramatize the ghostly recollections of a lawyer, played by Bill Blair (right). ASH DANIEL Sitting by the campfire, listening to ghost stories, Tom Width was sufficiently spooked.

It was the late 1950s, and while the young Width enjoyed many activities at his summer camp in southeast Pennsylvania, nothing thrilled the future actor, director and magician like the ghost stories his camp counselors told each evening. It’s this level of enthrallment that Width hopes to inspire with his latest play at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, Stephen Mallatratt’s “The Woman in Black.”

“That kind of storytelling keeps you on edge and makes you worry about what’s going to happen next,” explains Width, director of “Black” and longtime artistic director at Swift Creek. “I’ve always relished the idea of hearing a story and being caught up in it.”

Based on Susan Hill’s book of the same name, “The Woman in Black” tells the tale of a lawyer sent to settle the estate of a recently deceased woman in a small English town. From his client’s funeral onward, the lawyer keeps seeing a mysterious young woman dressed in black. None of the town’s inhabitants will talk about the woman, and the lawyer keeps encountering unsettling incidents. One foggy night, he hears a horse and cart overturn in the marsh near the dead woman’s home. Unable to find them in the fog, he listens to its occupants drown, only later determining that the sounds weren’t made by any living person.

The theatrical version – which has been running consecutively in London’s West End since 1989 – has a play within the play, featuring an older version of the lawyer as he takes notes from a young actor on how to best dramatize his own story. Soon, they decide to reverse the roles, with the actor playing the young version of the lawyer and the “real life” lawyer playing the other roles.

“It’s going to be a heck of a ride,” says Bill Blair, who plays the older character in Swift Creek’s production. “Once we get it cranking, which is about 15 minutes into the show, it really just kind of pops along.”

Blair fills a number of roles in the show, accompanied by Matt Hackman, who plays the young actor/lawyer character. Louise Mason and Lauren Bolding round out the cast, sharing the role of the woman in black.

“There are some scary moments, and Tom is just a master at this sort of thing,” Blair says. “If you feel like getting scared, come on down.”

Though Width says the set is minimal – comprising items like chairs, stools and boxes – other elements of the production design help create the ghostly atmosphere. The sound design is complex, with more than 100 sound effects factoring into the show.

“Memories are created with sounds of horses and buggies and crashes, moaning and wailing, all sorts of fun stuff,” Width says. “The stagecraft of it is fairly basic and simple.”

Width says he’s been trying to do “The Woman in Black” for years, and even had the rights previously, but they were revoked when the play’s owners were considering a Broadway mounting of the show. Though two movies have been made from the same source material – a British television film in 1989 and a 2012 theatrical release starring Daniel Radcliffe – actor Matt Hackman stresses the impact of seeing it live.

“It’s a different sort of feeling, it’s a visceral feeling, because you’re in the presence of it all,” Hackman says. “This is a rare opportunity. You don’t hear about a lot of ghost plays.”

Echoing his stage partner, Blair says the experience is much better than seeing a filmed version.

“It’s a whole different thing than being scared in a movie theater. This is live and in your face,” he says. “That’s no cheap trick. That’s the woman in black.” ¦

“The Woman in Black” runs Sept. 14 - Oct. 21 at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, 23834. For more information, visit swiftcreekmill.com or call 748-5203.

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