TAMPA — The Woman in Black starts with the most familiar story line in spooky literature. Circumstances lead someone to stay in an opulent but remote house. Townsfolk are weird, and act even weirder anytime the house is mentioned. Turns out something horrid happened in the house years ago.
Susan Hill, who wrote the book that spawned the play, didn't play with the standard plot too much. She offers an effective, but not especially inventive, version of the tale.
Playwright Stephen Mallatratt turned the book into a classic of contemporary intimate theater, framing the story within rehearsals for a staging of the story. He adds twists that intrigue general audiences, and he toys with stage conventions in a way that delights hard-core theater aficionados. As a result, the play has been running steadily in London for more than two decades.
But the success of the current staging at Gorilla Theatre belongs especially to Christopher Rutherford and Glenn Gover, the two actors who play virtually all the roles. They both deliver breathtaking performances that surely rank among the finest on area stages this year.
Gover, a relative newcomer to Tampa's theater scene (he was impressive in Shining City for Stageworks a few months back), has perhaps the more difficult and certainly the flashier of the two roles. As the play opens, he is the aging, mousy Arthur Kipps. He has written an account of his life-altering days in the fog-shrouded mansion called Eel March House, and he approaches a director to help him make his presentation of the story more effective.
Rutherford, one of the most-cast actors in this area, plays the director. But when he stages Kipps' story, the director takes the role of the younger Kipps, and Kipps takes all the other roles (except the title role, played by an uncredited actor). We watch rehearsals over a number of days, and every now and then the actors step out of their roles-within-roles and discuss the play-within-the-play. We gradually discover that the sinister goings-on at Eel Marsh House are only part of the story.
It could be confusing, but thanks largely to Rutherford and Gover, who seems instantly and physically changed every time he steps into a new character, the narrative flows pretty smoothly.
The design aspects of the production — Scott Cooper's stunning set of a musty theater, Chris Corley's jarring sound design, Jennifer Cunningham's flavorful period costumes and Keith Arsenault's moody lighting — are essential. Weak design elements could sink this show, but they all enhance it.
Director Ami Sallee Corley hits just the right note of spookiness. Corley treats the material seriously. It's ominous, if not exactly scary, and it's absolutely engrossing from curtain to curtain.