A study in fear Vermont Theatre Company’s ‘A Woman in Black’ engages the mind thanks to fine acting and gothic look and feel

Thursday January 24, 2013


"The Woman in Black," a gothic thriller by Stephen Mallatratt based on a novel by Susan Hill, has been playing in London’s West End for a quarter century. A movie version starring Daniel Radcliffe was released last year. So, in theater argot, the play has legs, and Vermont Theatre Company has decided to run with it. The production continues this weekend for three more performances at the Hooker-Dunham Theater.

The classic elements of gothic are murkily on view: journey to a remote village, isolated ruined manor house, eccentric townspeople, supernatural phenomena, nasty secrets unearthed, and a young innocent (male, this time) caught up in it all. The precursors are Poe, Dickens, Stoker’s "Dracula" (like Jonathan Harker, our hero is a newly minted solicitor on his first big assignment), James’ "The Turn of the Screw," du Maurier’s "Rebecca." Though the novel and play are recent, the setting is Victorian. A pastiche, then. What saves it from pure cliché is a frame device in which the story is enacted by the protagonist as a kind of exorcism, with the assistance of an actor/director who takes the protagonist’s part while the latter plays every other character in the story. (Got that?) Nothing new there, either: the "play within a play" goes back to ... well, you know.

But this gives two actors -- there are only two -- opportunity for virtuoso display. Clark Glennon and Richard Epstein seize it decisively, and that’s the main reason to see "The Woman in Black." Glennon has the mildly easier time of it; he has to be only two people, but one of them descends into a state of quivering terror, which Glennon does with complete conviction. Epstein plays multiple characters from a variety of social classes and with an array of provincial British accents. Though he’s a longtime veteran of the local arts scene, I doubt he’s ever been granted such a meaty role, and his performance is brilliantly accomplished.

Production values are of VTC’s customary high standard. The minimal set does its job, aided by simple lighting effects and fog (not too much, thankfully). The subterranean Hooker-Dunham is a perfect hall for this work; its crude stone walls practically scream "gothic," and the stage has been extended outward so that the playing area is less cramped than in previous productions. Noah Smith’s musical score is effective, and at a particularly climactic moment rises to eloquence. Jessica Callahan Gelter’s direction takes the measure of the work.

VTC’s publicity stresses the "thriller" tag, and states that the play’s intent is to make the audience afraid. It didn’t have that effect on me. Instead, it strikes me as being about fear, which is far more interesting.

Performances of "The Woman in Black" continue on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for seniors and students. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling the VTC box office at 802-258-1344 or by e-mailing vtcreservations@gmail.com.


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