First Folio's 'Woman in Black' a spine-tingling delight

  • A concerned local (Joe Foust), right, checks up on the increasingly unhinged Kipps (Kevin McKillip) in First Folio Theatre's revival of the classic thriller "The Woman in Black."

    A concerned local (Joe Foust), right, checks up on the increasingly unhinged Kipps (Kevin McKillip) in First Folio Theatre's revival of the classic thriller "The Woman in Black."

  • Keckwick (Joe Foust, left) shuttles the lawyer Kipps (Kevin McKillip) in the play-within-a-play in "The Woman in Black," running through May 1 at Oak Brook's First Folio Theatre.

    Keckwick (Joe Foust, left) shuttles the lawyer Kipps (Kevin McKillip) in the play-within-a-play in "The Woman in Black," running through May 1 at Oak Brook's First Folio Theatre.

  • An uneasy solicitor (Kevin McKillip) is unnerved by a mysterious stranger in First Folio Theatre's revival of Stephen Mallatratt's thriller, "The Woman in Black."

    An uneasy solicitor (Kevin McKillip) is unnerved by a mysterious stranger in First Folio Theatre's revival of Stephen Mallatratt's thriller, "The Woman in Black."

 
 
Updated 4/10/2011 2:12 AM

Reviving "The Woman in Black" is no easy task.

Stephen Mallatratt's ghost story -- adapted from Susan Hill's 1983 novel about a mysterious woman who haunts a remote British burg -- has run continuously in London since it premiered there nearly 22 years ago.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But while the popularity of the frequently performed play (Buffalo Theatre Ensemble staged it four years ago and Fox Valley Repertory produces its version in the fall) may sell tickets, it also poses a challenge for a theater company that must find a way to make thrilling a play whose thrills many audience members already know.

On that crucial count, First Folio Theatre succeeds.

Director Alison C. Vesely's production delivers the chills; the audience's telltale gasps and startled responses evidenced just how well.

In Joe Foust and Kevin McKillip, Vesely has a pair of versatile actors and practiced storytellers who keep the audience engaged even during the extensive exposition that dominates the first act of this show -- underscoring the power of theater to transport audiences through a good tale.

Set at the turn of the last century, the play-within-a-play begins in a modest, second-tier London theater, which set designer Angela Miller cleverly recasts as a shuttered estate in the second act. Here we meet an uneasy solicitor Arthur Kipps (Joe Foust, putting his subtle timing to fine use). He has engaged an actor, played with just the right touch of arrogance by Kevin McKillip (whose surrender to terror is truly gut wrenching), to dramatize a story drawn from a traumatic event from the lawyer's past.

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Early in his career, Kipps' firm sent him to the isolated Eel Marsh Manor belonging to the recently deceased Alice Drablow to put the late widow's affairs in order. At the funeral, Kipps encounters a mysterious woman whose presence the locals refuse to discuss.

After unraveling the mystery, Kipps suffers in silence for years before he decides to re-create the events onstage in an effort to exorcise his demons and end his nightmares. The actor, knowing a good part when he sees one and sensing an opportunity to promote himself, agrees. McKillip's actor proposes that he play Kipps' part, while Kipps takes on the roles of the locals he encountered, including a monosyllabic driver and a solicitous entrepreneur.

Designer Shelley S. Holland earns kudos for her wonderfully eerie lighting reinforcing the sense of isolation that underscores the action. Christopher Kriz also deserves praise for his spine-chilling sound. On a related note, much of the show's success rests with the textbook timing of the sound and lighting cues. Tip of the hat to First Folio's crew for helping to sustain the suspense.