By Charlotte Alexander

Written and published in 2011

So . . . mothers and fathers and children of all ages, gather ’round the campfire – er, stage – for a tale well told of eerie happenings, ghostly hauntings and things that go bump in the night!

The small, intimate, friendly stage at the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria has been transformed pretty seamlessly into a small, intimate, foreboding Victorian stage that is the setting for “The Woman in Black.” If you’ve neither seen nor heard of this theatrical phenomenon that has run for the past two decades in London’s West End, you’re in for a treat on any one of a number of levels.

First, it’s an actor’s delight. The script, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a book by Susan Hill, gives the play’s only two living-and-breathing players the opportunity to take on multiple roles, use minimal props to suggest complex scenes and situations, and execute some very precise timing. 

The team taking command of the stage in this instance is more than prepared for the challenge. Emma Duncan and Corbin Went, two Cambria natives who recently returned to the United States after studying at the British American Drama Academy in London, are a delight to watch. 

Went plays Arthur Kipps, a solicitor once charged with settling an estate in a remote region of England, who is desperate to reveal the chronicle of death and the departed that ensued. Duncan plays “The Actor,” a character that Kipps hires to help him recreate the events, so perhaps he can finally lay the haunted tale and its players to rest. In an engaging turnabout, as the story unfolds, The Actor becomes Kipps, and Kipps becomes a myriad of characters who interact with The Actor who is struggling to make sense of what happened.

Went and Duncan both have mastered the art of holding audiences in their hands. Went proves adept at using both his voice and his body to subtly communicate taking on each new character, and Duncan displays a commanding physicality when she assumes the role of Kipps. Both performers are self-assured and charming players, obviously possessed of boundless energy that allows them to hold with confidence a bare stage – well, it does include an old steamer trunk and two chairs – for the hour and a half the play runs. 

Second, despite describing it as a “stagy, two-handed, haunted house of a show, with its fogs and shadows, its cries and echoes of cries,” director Charles Duncan clearly is having fun – but not at the audience’s expense. His intelligent and organized direction keeps the plot moving along and the special effects from overwhelming the human element.

His careful, thoughtful approach helps keep audience members alert and focused during the first ten or fifteen minutes of the play, when the uncertainty of not knowing quite where we are headed is at its peak.

In the “Behind the Scenes” department, lighting and sound design have major roles in the production. The credits list separate stage managers for lights and sound – Ashley Davis and Kaitlin Bitto, respectively – who quite admirably see to it that cues such as a snap of an actor’s fingers result in a split-second change in mood, scene or setting.

Thanks to Corbin Went’s lighting design (with set-up help from Ashley Davis and James Buckley), the setting moves from Victorian stage to murky marsh to haunted house. And few recent productions on the Central Coast have made more or better use of sound thanks to designer Andrew Senna.

Cast and crew of “The Woman in Black” have conjured up a winner at the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria. The show will haunt audiences through August 27 (don’t be surprised, however, if audience demand suggests that the Playhouse extend the show’s run through, say, Halloween!).