‘The Woman in Black’ at Keegan Theatre


Robert Leembruggen and Matthew Keenan in “The Woman in Black” at The Keegan Theatre. (Cameron Whitman)
November 12, 2013

One way to consider all those Halloween haunted houses that just closed up for another season is as a kind of immersive theater, where the actors assault the viewer for maximum shock.

“The Woman in Black” at the Keegan Theatre is a much more refined activity than that. Its pair of actors strive to retell a single scary story, whose impact is accented by effective light and sound.

It’s measurably successful, even drawing screams from the audience — and when’s the last time you witnessed that?

The premise for the work is to create a scary story to share on Christmas Eve, a traditional time for such frights in the family of one Mr. Kipps. And it takes place in dark and dangerous marshes in the bleakest of months, November.

And maybe Stephen Mallatrat’s “The Woman in Black,” based on a book by Susan Hill, defies season. It’s been playing 25 years on London’s West End, where it is the second-longest-running show.

It works as theater because of the clever staging of directors Colin Smith and Mark A. Rhea. Robert Leembruggen plays a man seeking professional help in making an effective tale of an incident that had shaken him. A theatrical professional, played by Matthew Keenan, is happy to help.

And the play is the result of their trying out different characters, playing out scenes, until the velocity of the story overtakes the shared approach.

Their blending of one character into another adds a nimble virtuosity that brings life to what might otherwise be a more rote horror tale. Through description and fervor, with the key element of background sound, a story that appears on the page as flat in its first reading, comes to vivid life — real enough to cause those screams in the audience.

Certainly, Kipps will win the Christmas competition for scariest story, though he says his goal is to expunge his nightmares by sharing it.

Keegan’s production does everything right. Nearly as important as the direction is the pinpoint precision of Michael Innocenti’s lights and Tony Angelini’s sound. The set by co-director Smith is both authentic to the times and versatile.

Leembruggen, with such a haunted face, and Keenan, with a sprightly confidence that eventually gets shaken, make for a winning cast that shows the power of subtlety where others would exaggerate.

In the cozy confines of the Keegan, where they use every inch of the space, there’s no need for them to be especially loud, drawing viewers in close.

The haunting, often shocking figure that persists in “Woman in Black” — indeed, its title character — would seem to require a credit and bow at the end as well. But since there is none of that, could this confirm that what we see, or think we see, is an actual supernatural presence?

It’s a question that lingers on the way out the door and down the dark street.

Catlin is a freelance writer.

The Woman in Black

by Stephen Mallatratt, from the book by Susan Hill. Directed by Colin Smith and Mark A. Rhea. Set, Colin Smith; costumes, Kelly Peacock; lighting, Michael Innocenti; sound, Tony Angelini. About 1 hour 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets, $30-$35. Through Nov. 30 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. 703-892-0202 or www.keegantheatre.com.

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