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Black as a ghost in The Woman in Black

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Do newer generations of theatergoers thrill to the promise of suspense? For those of you accustomed to consuming horror in its new millennium manifestations -- complex and conflicted vampires, 3D monsters and aliens zooming at you relentlessly in widescreen and video games -- the simpler, subtler style of The Woman in Black, now at Theatre Charlotte, will seem like a strange journey to an alternate universe. Susan Hill's novella, although first published in 1983, is layered and suspenseful in the old-style manner of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

In all of these classic narratives, we get the horror and the supernatural second-hand rather than in a direct presentation -- through journals, letters, or storytelling that we eavesdrop on. Arthur Kipps, the protagonist in Hill's book, unburdens himself to his family on Christmas Eve after they've related a string of innocuous ghost stories around the hearth. Dramatizing the work for the stage, Stephen Mallatratt adds another layer between us and Kipps's perilous journey to Eel Marsh House -- and perhaps an additional haunting.

Kipps brings his tale, in the form of a thick manuscript, to an actor at a theater, hoping to get some valuable coaching on how to present the long narrative to his family without putting them to sleep in the process. The actor, obviously a character who never appeared in Hill's version, suggests that the two of them act out all of the characters, with the aid of theater scenery and a resourceful helpmate up in the soundbooth. Horse-drawn carriages, capricious dogs, and quicksand found in the book can thus be simulated onstage without a Phantom of the Opera budget.

Chris Timmons provides the dim, gauzy scenery that humbly suggests our ultimate destination in misty, murky Eastern England, but the individual chambers of horrors remain nicely under wraps until Timmons' brilliant lighting design comes into play. Vito Abate deftly directs his two actors in a script that stretches them both. I'm not sure I've ever seen Joe Copley sort out the complexities of any role as magnificently as he does here with Kipps -- the actor must convince us that he's a somewhat stuffy lawyer haunted by his past, aching to unburden himself of his horrifying tale. Beyond that lies Mallatratt's tricky tightrope: a neophyte actor who is dubious about all this theater business, yet able to be believable in the majority of bit parts that bestrew the Kipps narrative. If the story grips you, you'll find that Copley has triumphed over this impossibility.

Young Patrick Hogan, in his Charlotte debut, faces a less daunting labyrinth as the actor, splitting his time between serving as Kipps's theater mentor and portraying the younger, intrepid Kipps when the narrative is rehearsed. Where the real dramatic tensions are ratcheting up and the actor is our protagonist, Hogan superbly grafts Kripps's propriety and naivete to his stiff-necked determination. Hogan had me caring about the intrepid young lawyer dispatched to the outskirts of hell to settle the musty Drablow estate. Paradoxically, when he needs to be an actor and mentor, Hogan doesn't build a shell of professional confidence and experiential complacency. Seeing that shell crumble ought to be one of the chief delights of the denouement.

But that's assuming that this story sweeps you that far. Mallatratt worries over his adjustments to the framework a bit too much for my taste, slowing down the Act 1 exposition. My wife normally bridles at going to violent action movies, let alone horror and slasher flicks. Yet Sue only squeezed my knee once all evening. Briefly. Best not to expect an evening of terror. Let the pleasures of mystery and suspense sneak up on you unawares, and you should be all right.

Unless you see something you really shouldn't. Like a crazed, fiendish ghost.

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