The Woman in Black performs in the Bagley Wright Theatre at Seattle Repertory Theatre through March 24. For tickets or information, call the Seattle Rep box office at 206-443-2222 or visit

“The Woman in Black” is a ghost story.


Billed as a mystery thriller, we were promised spine-tingling fear. Skittish souls may have shivered in terror, but not this critic. Not even close. Maybe I’ve seen too many British murder mysteries. Maybe I’ve read too many Gothic novels. Maybe I was sitting too far from the action. No shivers. No tingling spine. But, as The Actor in the play advises, “Imagination is the key.” I suspended reality and dared myself to become immersed in the story.  

English writer Stephen Mallatratt adapted Susan Hill’s 1983 Gothic novel, “The Woman in Black,” for director Robin Herford in 1987. The script had only two actors, minimal scenery and a handful of low-tech special effects. Much to his surprise, the show became a hit, and moved a few years later to London’s West End, where it has been running ever since. Mallatratt’s adaptation remains faithful to Hill’s novel, but adds an extra dimension of a play-within-a-play.

This is the first American tour of “The Woman in Black,” helmed by Herford and the original designers. On opening night at The Rep, Bradley Armacost and Nick Vidal played the roles of Arthur Kipps and a character known only as The Actor. They were superb; their phrasing magnificent, their language exquisite. 

Like the novel, the elderly Arthur Kipps, who has a ghastly/ghostly tale to tell, narrates the play. He’s written an account of something dreadful he experienced years before, and plans to read it aloud to his family and friends, hoping to exorcise his memory. He even hires a young actor (Vidal) to rehearse with him and liven up his delivery.

Much to Arthur’s shock, The Actor, a bit of a bossy pants, decides the story should be performed with costumes, lighting and sound effects. He assigns himself the part of young Kipps while casting the real Kipps as all of the other characters.

The Actor boasts that he can make an Olivier out of Arthur, who quickly poo-poos this as nonsense. “I am not a performer,” he protests … over and over and over.

His first reading confirms this. His monotonous delivery has humorous results—he even reads the stage directions as part of his role. But when Arthur is forced to take on the other characters, he suddenly discovers —and embraces — his inner thespian.

The play lumbers languorously through the narrative. Not until halfway through the first act does the story begin to unfold, as the play and life turn into one rambling and haunting jumble. (The Brits do relish a raconteur.)

The set is simple:  An elegant salon chair; a wooden stool; a wicker trunk that becomes a desk, a pony cart, a bed, etc. Draped fabric conveys a wall and acts as a scrim.

The talented Armacost and Vidal do the rest.

They are splendid, their moods ranging from subtle humor to feigned fear. Armacost’s characters vary in temperament and style, which he delivers with virtuoso panache. Vidal embodies The Actor, especially as young Kipps, with a marvelous diversity of emotions. And the mysterious Woman in Black wafts in and out of the action with ghostly menace and malevolence.

The real tale begins when Arthur Kipps’ boss sends him (a junior solicitor) to the village of Crythin Gifford on England’s North Coast. He’s to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow, then settle her estate. While at the graveyard, he spies a young woman with a wasted face, dressed all in black. His curiosity is piqued.

Undaunted by the townsfolks’ reluctance to speak of the Woman in Black, Arthur goes to Eel Marsh House. (Who would name a house that?) Mrs. Drablow’s isolated abode is located in the middle of a marsh, which is cut off from the mainland at high tide. But he’s not alone; he has an invisible dog. Well, invisible to the audience; but delightfully mimed by him. A few charming moments to break up the eerie atmosphere.

Sorting through her papers, he finds a box of letters and ultimately discovers the dreadful secret of The Woman in Black. It seems Mrs. Drablow had a sister. He also discovers an empty nursery full of abandoned toys and a music box that plays a haunting Brahms’s Lullaby.

As the second act creeps to its twisted denouement, the Woman in Black reappears, as ominous as ever. An empty rocking chair rocks. A locked door won’t budge. An ominous pounding. The beckoning bog of quicksand. Gusts of wind wail in the night. A thick fog descends. Darkness. The sound of a pony and trap on the causeway. Also, a few blood-curdling screams, which evoked more laughter than fear from the opening’s rapt audience. Of course, there’s much more to this story that we will not spoil. 

But I still wasn’t afraid — nary a tremble. Perhaps, if as The Actor said, imagination is really the key, I began to imagine the play as a spoof — a spoof of ghostly horror thrillers. Maybe I was wrong, but I can live with that.