Bruce Burgun and Jack O’Hara in “The Woman in Black.” courtesy photo

“The Woman in Black”

by Barney Quick

The Brown County Playhouse’s last production of the season, The Woman in Black, combines the Gothic horror genre with the psychological study, tying both together in a chilling final scene. The original story line from Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, was strictly a Gothic tale, replete with the atmospherics that make this production such a treat: fog rising from bogs, an old mansion, doors that open, and chairs that rock on their own. When playwright Stephen Mallatratt gave it dramatic life for the London theater, he superimposed a persistent mental disturbance plaguing the protagonist, Kipps, onto the ghost yarn as a major plot element.

The audience must early on get clear that the character generally referred to as Kipps throughout the play is actually an actor hired by Kipps to reenact what he experienced while settling the estate of a recently deceased woman. The real Kipps, played by Bruce Burgun, is so unsure of his grip on reality that he has reconstructed the episode as a script. The actor he has hired, played by Jack O’Hara, becomes increasingly sympathetic to Kipps’s plight as the play unfolds. Together they seek to unravel the core element that has so badly shaken Kipps’s notions of what’s real. They undertake this assuming that it can be resolved rationally. That’s what makes the final scene so creepy.

Kipps, an attorney, had gone to a remote village to wind up the affairs of Alice Drablow, who had lived alone in the mist-enshrouded mansion for years. He had attended her funeral and seen an apparition with a startling face and then felt a new urgency about his work. While staying at the mansion, reading old letters and documents and questioning villagers, he saw the figure on various occasions.

He is finally able to piece together a plausible explanation for Ms. Drabnow’s reclusiveness. She had a sister whose young son had died in circumstances seen by the sister as Alice’s fault. The sister became ill and died, leaving Alice with the wreckage of family relations gone awry.

Still, Kipps cannot get to the bottom of why he sees this ghostly woman with the nearly skeletal face. To make matters worse, he subsequently suffers the loss of his own young son and wife in an amusement-park accident. He sees the woman in black again during this period.

All these layers of fright and menace come together in a fine bit of storytelling during the final scene.

Director Murray McGibbon, Associate Professor of Acting and Directing at Indiana University, relishes the particular challenges of presenting this work in this venue. “This is an overtly theatrical piece,” he says. “You really have to engage the audience.” Since the action is really the story’s reconstruction by Kipps and his hired actor, “you have to make sure you’re effective in making scenes like the coach ride compelling. The audience has to envision the horses and the reins, just as the characters do. Also, given the way the seating is arranged in this playhouse, with people viewing the stage from the sides as well as facing it, it becomes a mathematical puzzle to give everyone a shared theatrical experience.”

The door that opens on its own and the chair that rocks by itself are feats of set-design coordination that require meticulous timing. Such effects are executed with chilling precision. The lighting does much to indicate which layer of reality is being dealt with at any point in the story line.

O’Hara and Burgun establish a volatile and multifaceted chemistry early on. It’s sure no small task for each of them to keep straight the demeanor to be assumed at any time, given the number of townspeople and others being brought to life. The number of characters in this play is much larger than the cast.

Krystin Hegner isn’t required to show a great deal of range as an actress here, but she is appropriately ghostly, moving throughout scenes at an otherworldly pace and disappearing ethereally.

The show began on September 22 and will run Fridays through Sundays until October 21. Tickets can be ordered at the IU Auditorium at (812) 855-1103, or the Brown County Playhouse box office at (812) 988-2123.