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Old-fashioned Ghost Story from Swift Creek Mill Theatre

In these days when horror often means blood, guts, and gore, it’s nice to return to a good old spine-tingling story.

Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s production of The Woman in Black delivers just that.

Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novella, “The Woman in Black,” is a ghost story long on imagination and short on props and sets.

Director Tom Width has the perfect location at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. The theater, housed in an old grist mill dating back to 1663, has at least one ghost of its own. And to be sure any ghosts are kept happy, a ghost light illuminates center stage; legend has it that the light allows the ghosts a chance to perform so they won’t curse the theatre.

The play begins in old London, where elderly solicitor Arthur Kipps is trying to bring a 30-year-old story of horror to the stage, in hopes of exorcising the memories that still haunt him. A (rather long) framing scene introduces Arthur (Bill Blair) as he explains the tale to the younger actor (Matt Hackman) who will portray him. During the telling of the tale, Hackman plays Arthur, while Blair creates a variety of secondary characters, from stranger on a train to trap driver. This may sound confusing, but on stage, it works.

The Actor recreates Kipps’ story of traveling to the remote English countryside town of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman, Mrs. Drablow. Too late, he realizes why the townspeople shrink at the mention of her estate: It’s haunted.

From Mrs. Drablow’s funeral on, Arthur keeps seeing the mysterious woman in black (played by Louise Mason or Lauren Bolding) and hearing recreations of horrible events. As he goes through Mrs. Drablow’s papers, Arthur learns the story of the woman.

The play features only two speaking actors playing multiple roles, and minimal props. However, the audience is encouraged to imagine the settings, with Paul Deiss’ excellent sound effects filling in the gaps with everything from Spider the dog to a pony and trap, to – of course – the heavy breathing of the Woman in Black. Joe Doran’s lighting design further creates the mood.

Because of that, there’s not a lot of action on stage, just the suggestion of eerie events such as the frenetic empty rocking chair in the nursery. The Woman in Black first appears motionless in fleeting glimpses, but later when she moves, she tended to be somewhat clunky and fast, rather than floaty and ethereal as one might imagine a ghost.

The play isn’t particularly creepy, and might not be, as sometimes billed, “the most terrifying theater experience in the world,” but it’s a great way to lose yourself on a fall evening.

The Woman in Black is showing through October 21. Visit Swift Creek Mill Theatre for showtimes and tickets.

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