The Woman in Black terrorizes Chicago with ghostly, Gothic splendor

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By Sofia Bening

Imagine: you’re all alone in the English countryside, and everything is quiet. The only sounds you hear are the whistling winds whipping past your ears and your own frantic breathing. A blanket of fog shrouds everything in front of you, except for one thing that looms over the marshes you’re standing in: an old, towering house.

Those feelings of solitude, dread and fright will creep up your spine when you attend a showing of The Woman in Black, the world-famous West End import playing now at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre. The second longest running show in British theatrical history, The Woman in Black offers up a grueling, ghoulish ordeal that you can’t get anywhere else, and one definitely not to be missed.

The play, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name, tells of a young lawyer named Arthur Kipps who is sent to a remote and lonely house to deal with a dead woman’s affairs. Eel Marsh House is home to a malevolent spirit, who—no prizes if you guessed this right—is indeed the titular character.

We’ve all heard ghost stories and seen horror movies in our lifetimes; a ghost of a dead woman dressed in all black doesn’t sound too scary, does it? I thought the same thing. But I came to understand that the most haunting, chilling tales are birthed from rawness and grit: no convoluted pretenses, no fancy special effects.

Since its run on London’s West End began in 1989, The Woman in Black has never changed in the face of advancing technology and the progress of the digital age. All of its effects use 80’s technology, and the minimalist set design contains only old-fashioned props. To spook you, the play relies on extremely low lighting, grainy recorded sound, and the mesmerizing talent of just two actors. For this run at the Royal George, Adam Welsey Brown and Bradley Armacost deliver magnetic performances that pull you deep into their joint nightmare.

No screens, no hint of any advanced technology—save for the machine that rolls out thick, soupy fog from the side of the stage—no fancy light or sound sequences, and no elaborate costume changes. The Woman in Black unfolds slowly, bit by bit, and dishes out the kind of scares that slowly creep and scuttle like spiders along all your senses.

You’ll feel uneasy and unsettled, never mind that you know very well you’re in a cozy little seat in a downtown Chicago theatre. When the scares begin to build and the terror comes to a climax, whole rows jump in their seats, strangers unknowingly cling onto one another for dear life, and embarrassed I’m-a-grown-adult-why-did-I-just-scream laughter escapes into the air.

It’s no wonder that The Woman in Black has been a must-see theatre staple for the past 30 years. In an age where our definition of the horror genre has mostly come to include the highest level of dazzle and gore, it’s a rare privilege to be haunted in the most old-school way by a spirit in a Gothic house on the English marshes. Best of all, the play ends with a twist that will have you scanning your dimly-lit surroundings every step you take on the way home for a gaunt, shadowy figure.

The Woman in Black is a bone-chillingly good time, and one of the most unique and unforgettable theatre experiences playing today...but be careful as you tread through the deep, dark marshes.

Catch The Woman in Black at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago, running through Feb. 17 2019.

ArtNoah Franklin