First the good news: The White Rock Players Club’s season opener, The Woman In Black, by Stephen Mallatrat, hits a resounding right note, not only as a suitably chilling exercise in Victorian gothic style for the Halloween season, but as a benchmark for what community theatre can and should achieve.
Director Mike Busswood and his cast and crew – and producers Josh Fuller and Katherine Lozada – can take a well-deserved bow for a job well done through attention to detail.
And play-goers who appreciate an involving, atmospheric evening with a few delicious frissons along the way should make sure to book tickets for this show before it slips away, wraith-like, after the Oct. 28 closing night.
Particularly deserving of praise are the imaginative, subtle playing of leads Eric Fortin (as middle-aged lawyer Kipps) and Harrison MacDonald (as the younger Actor), and the splendidly eerie presence projected by Sara Lohnes (as the title character).
Mallatrat’s major feat of legerdemain, in adapting Susan Hill’s creepy novella of late Victorian England to the stage, has been to transfer the action to the stage of a deserted theatre during the Edwardian era, and to have the characters played by three actors only.
Kipps, we understand, is still in the grip of a harrowing experience he had decades before, while he was sorting through the effects of an elderly client who had died a semi-recluse in a misty, marshy coastal region.
He wishes to exorcise the curse he feels he is under by telling his story to a select audience of friends and family. To do so he has rented a theatre and employed a professional actor to advise him, in what ultimately evolves into an acted-out dramatization of the events.
Mallatrat’s central conceit– in which we are asked to accept that, with the encouragement of the thespian, Kipps develops into a gifted character actor capable of evoking almost all the supporting roles in his story – challenges credibility, without a doubt.
Yet the approach somehow works in telling The Woman In Black’s haunting tale, and – aided by the ability of skilled players to suspend audience disbelief – has worked for the better part of 40 years on the London stage.
Fortunately, in Fortin and MacDonald, Busswood has actors equal to this task. Fortin’s likeable assurance in taking on a variety of British accents, postures and mannerisms adds flavour and atmosphere to the piece, helping bridge transitions of time and place, while MacDonald’s commanding playing and narration – in which he takes on the role of Kipps’ younger self – not only drives the story but contributes to a growing sense of horror and dread.
Guided by Busswood’s thorough and thoughtful direction, both players provide an object lesson in the potential of theatre, demonstrating that it’s in the power of an observant actor – from nuances of voice and gesture to absolute conviction in what is being done in the moment – to conjure any mood or location.
Similarly, with little to do, yet much to achieve, Lohnes also makes the most of every second she has on stage.
All three receive a tremendous assist from the physical production, from Laura McKenzie and Amara Anderson’s period-evocative costuming, and Tim Driscoll’s admirably minimalist set (using only elements that might exist on a disused stage), to Naomi Mitchell’s well-chosen properties, Miles Lavkulich’s atmospheric lighting and Gordon Gilmour’s largely well-achieved sound design.
The bad news? There’s not a lot – although two key moments at the performance I saw last Saturday, regrettably, did not receive the same degree of care that distinguishes the rest of this production.
As the show’s program notes, any good theatre – no matter how lightweight the idiom – should be an immersive experience. Anything that distracts from or diminishes this connection with the audience, for whatever reason, or however clever it seems, simply doesn’t belong.
Which brings me to the house lights that remained on throughout the first scene of the show.
It’s an important expository dialogue, but I found it difficult to concentrate on the words – I was trying to decide whether the lights were up in error, or whether their presence was a deliberate attempt to reflect the seemingly casual nature of the opening lines. If that was the intent, a darkened auditorium would have served the mood better, and might have signalled still-conversing audience members that the show had begun.
Audience members were also confused later on by a sound cue that is either under-developed or was in the wrong place. Without wishing to provide any spoilers, it’s a complicated effect that is supposed to convey a horrendous crash involving a pony and trap, with appropriate screams. At the show I saw, it sounded merely like a horse’s whinny of alarm, making the horrified reaction of the actor on stage hard to understand.
Which is unfortunate as, in a show that is – admittedly – crammed with sound effects, this one is probably the single most important of the lot.
The Woman In Black runs until Oct. 28 at Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd. Tickets 604-536-7535 or www.whiterockplayers.ca