Opening this week, and opening this week, are two Los Angeles productions of this thriller—a mainstay of London's West End since 1989. One is a production by Pasadena Shakespeare Company, the other by NoHo's Road Theatre. How did this happen, and what's the appeal of the show anyway? The answers parallel the tale itself, a story of ghosts within and without.
Adapted from Susan Hill's novel by Stephen Mallatratt, The Woman in Black tells a parapsychological tale: A lawyer winding up the affairs of a deceased woman pieces together the details of her reclusive life in a strange remote house. Years later, desperate to exorcise the ghosts, he hires a young actor and rents an abandoned London theatre to reenact his experiences.
Gillian Bagwell, producer for Pasadena Shakespeare Company, learned too late that Samuel French had simultaneously granted the Road Company its rights. Most of the PSC audience comes from Pasadena anyway, Bagwell reasoned. "So we have some folks who would come out to see us and wouldn't care if there was another production. Who knows, maybe they'll come out to see both?"
Besides, the company found itself in a similar situation five years ago, when Our Country's Good was closing at the Colony and opening at PSC. "We did well with that show, so I don't think it mattered. We got good audiences and good reviews. There's a certain percentage of our audience that comes from all over, and they're people who see other theatre. I'm sure we overlap audiences with many theatres. We also have an audience from the San Gabriel Valley who may not go further afield."
Helen Harwell, producer for the Road Company, found out about PSC's pending production through a cast member in the Road's last show. "At first I was a little surprised," said Harwell. "When we were getting the rights from Samuel French, when I first called, they made it sound like it was really restricted."
Harwell complained to Samuel French. "I spoke with someone who said they don't have any system to track it. They don't keep those records in a computer. Besides, Samuel French said the writer or whoever owns the rights decides how many productions and where and when. They said they have nothing to do with it—they're just the middlemen for royalty payments. They also said this has happened before and nothing could be done about it." Samuel French couldn't even tell her if a third production was running in L.A. Anyway, said Harwell, the Road Company show will be "amazing" and sure to get its own audiences. And the two shows run on different nights.
Who will the shows attract? After all, anyone not a teenage girl realizes this show is about the design elements, right? "I don't think so," said Road Company director Ken Sawyer. Despite that he's loved horror movies since childhood, he's mining subtext here. "When I looked at the script, and when I saw another production of it in Garden Grove, it seemed like two English talking heads for the first act, then the second act packed a wallop. The secret is to mine the characters and care about the characters, and get the audience to be entertained, and then sneak up behind and hit them on the head."
Sawyer also worked on keeping it authentically period. "I thought, It's the 1940s, so why not put it in a theatre bombed out by Blitz? And if it's the 1940s, they're poor people. What if the actor he hired is this side of Skid Row? He's got to have this job to feed his family. As I thought about this, the characters started developing more."
Still, effects are essential to WIB. Road Company resident designer Desma Murphy is helping create the ghostly worlds. Using Sawyer's concepts, she is transforming the 50-seater into a rundown Victorian theatre. "With lighting and fabric, it becomes the different environments as you go through the play," said Murphy, "the vanishing staircase—not that it vanishes, it's the illusion—the eerie graveyard, the childhood home." Her set pieces remain onstage, build very sturdily, but seem to appear and disappear, with Robert L. Smith's "moody lighting to set the tone," added Murphy.
The production may have a ghost of its own. Murphy was struggling with the mysterious red ball that suddenly appears. "Keeping it under control is a challenge," Murphy admitted. "It rolls on and needs to stop suddenly so it doesn't roll offstage. But we can't have a bunch of trick lines that actors are going to trip on in the process."
And what secrets will we spill about those women in black? Well, they'll look thin and well dressed and will be ready to appear anywhere.
"The Woman in Black" will be presented by and at the Road Theatre Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Oct. 11-Dec. 21. $20 (or $5 with EdgeFest passport, Oct. 10-20). (818) 759-3382, ext. 2#.
Also, "Woman in Black" will be presented by the Pasadena Shakespeare Company at the Fremont Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., S. Pasadena. Sun. 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13-Nov. 24. $15. (626) 799-1860.