There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago
Holiday stories these days are of the saccharine Hallmark variety: beautiful city girl stranded in a small town learns the meaning of the season from the town’s dashing reindeer veterinarian, sharing their first kiss under the mistletoe on Christmas Eve.
I just threw up a little in my mouth.
Long before the Lifetime and Hallmark channels started cranking out yuletide pablum, the holidays were considered the perfect time to gather friends and family together with a cup of cocoa in front of the fire to tell ghost stories. Telling spooky tales was as much a part of Christmas for the Victorian English as Santa Claus is today. In fact, arguably the most famous (okay, the SECOND most famous) Christmas story was a ghost story: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.
Chicago has welcomed a ghost story into town, just in time for the holidays. “The Woman in Black” is playing at the Royal George Theatre (1641 N. Halstead) through February 17, 2019. Adapted from a story published in 1983, the play has been running continuously since 1989 and is the second longest running play in London’s West End, after “The Mousetrap.” The original story tells the tale of a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps, who travels to a distant village, Crythin Gifford, to attend the funeral of his client, Mrs. Alice Deblow, and to attend to her probate matters. Kipps sees a young woman dressed in all black standing in the churchyard, but the local parishioners are reluctant to speak of her.
Kipps decides to spend the night at Mrs. Deblow’s home, Eel Marsh House, an old building in the middle of a marsh, which is cut off from the mainland at high tide. While alone in the creaky old house and sorting through her documents, Kipps comes across a box of letters and ultimately discovers the secret of the Woman in Black, to his own peril.
This stage production of the story is sparse. It features two actors (Bradley Armacost plays Arthur Kipps and Adam Wesley Brown plays The Actor) and six props: three chairs, a wicker trunk, a suitcase and a clothes rack. The story is told by staging a play-within-a-play and while it initially feels like that might be a gimmicky device, the format allows the actors to really stretch their creative muscles. Through clever writing and innovative direction, we meet at least eight characters and visit at least eight locations. Chicago-based actor Armacost is especially compelling as he seems to easily disappear into each new character by using a slightly different accent or putting on a pair of glasses. Using shadows and light, combined with chilling sound effects to build suspense, the audience is on the edge of our seats while joining Kipps at the spooky house on the marsh.
This play has been running in London for nearly 30 years for good reason: scary storytelling that relies on the audience’s imagination as much as any special effect. “The Woman in Black” is a terrific, dark alternative to traditional holiday offerings.
"The Woman In Black" runs through February 17, 2019 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halstead.