Arts & Events

“Woman in Black”: the scariest play I’ve ever seen comes to Hayward Theatre in September

By John A. McMullen II
Friday August 02, 2013 - 09:07:00 AM

Twenty years ago, on my first trip to London, for a Wednesday matinee my companion and I took a chance on a play we knew nothing about except that it was one of the more popular shows there.  

It was in a smallish, older theatre, but the house was full.  

I like spooky stories, and I was intrigued by what they would do with it. I had recently played the vampire hunter in a stage version of Dracula which was directed by a magician, and, while the effects were impressive and the audience enthusiastic, I can’t vouch that we frightened anyone. 

About fifteen minutes into the play, I got the you-know-what scared out of me.  

When the Sunday Mirror warns, “Don’t go unless you like being scared out of your wits,” they ain’t just whistling “Rule Britannia.” 

I guess they had installed speakers under the seats or something, but whatever it was, I jumped out of my seat and fell on the floor. 

The play was “The Woman in Black,” and I’m haunted by it to this day. 

Douglass Morrison theatre in Hayward will take a shot at in the month of September under the able direction of Marilyn Langbehn. Langbehn directed “Frost/Nixon” the year before last to some acclaim. At least to the acclaim of those who saw it—DMT is off-the-beaten path, no BART comes close enough, and it’s a circuitous route through a residential neighborhood to find it. But when Langbehn is directing and the cast looks good, I make the sojourn down the Hayward, and this time seems like one of those. Its cast is C. Conrad Cady, Mark Frazier and Cynthia Lagodzinski. 

The play, now in its 24th season in London, is the second longest-running play in the history of the West End, next only to Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” (which has been running since 1952 with 25,000 performances!). “The Woman in Black” has become such an icon in Britain that they use it to teach drama and comparative literature for the GCSE, their specialized version of secondary education. 

Here is the preview synopsis the DMT is offering: 

“The curtain rises on a small Victorian theatre. Arthur Kipps is attempting to exorcise the demons of his past by recounting his story to an actor, and the two men proceed to “act out” certain events from Kipps’ life. Many years before, his job required him to attend the funeral of the sole occupant of Eel Marsh House. He spies a gaunt young woman dressed all in black at the funeral and the haunting begins. Hidden behind the shuttered windows of that house on the windswept salt marshes lie tragic and terrible secrets.” 

They made a film of “Woman in Black” a couple of times, the most recent last year with Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe (65% Rotten Tomatoes – about what “Wolverine” is getting), but that’s probably because contemporary audiences like gore and horror and Zombies as opposed to sophisticated terror. 

“The Woman in Black” was written by playwright and actor Stephen Mallatrat whose credits you’ll recognize as a writer for “Coronation Street,” “The Forsyte Saga” and “Island at War,” and who was featured in “Chariots of Fire” and “Brideshead Revisited.” 

The play was dramatized from the book by English author Susan Hill whose books have won the Whitbread Fiction Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and been shortlisted for The Booker Prize. 

“The Woman in Black” plays September 6-29, Fri/Sat/Sun at Douglas Morrisson Theatre, 22311 N. Third St., Hayward. More info at