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'The Woman in Black' gets imaginative staging at Fells Point Corner Theatre

Sean Coe in "The Woman in Black" at Fells Point Corner Theatre.
Sean Coe in "The Woman in Black" at Fells Point Corner Theatre. (Fells Point Corner Theatre)

It isn't always easy to get some good old suspense going in a theater, let alone keep intensifying the edginess. Stephen Mallatratt's adaption of the Susan Hill novel "The Woman in Black" makes things even tougher by reducing the forces to a mere two actors and relying more on narrative than action for impact.

But this play — technically, a play within a play — has the fright stuff, which helps explain why a production of "The Woman in Black" has been running for 28 years in London. The version now at Fells Point Corner Theatre isn't aiming for such longevity, but makes an admirable effort to convey the spook-ability.

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In brief, the piece deals with a lawyer named Kipps who wishes to retell, for a select audience in a theater, a disturbing churchyard encounter he had years earlier. It happened while he was settling the estate of a deceased client, Mrs. Alice Drablow, in the English town of Crythin Gifford. The lawyer engages the services of a young actor to help punch up the manuscript.

In short order, the actor takes over the bulk of the re-enactment, while the lawyer handles the impersonation of assorted other characters. The blend of past-and-present gets murkier as more details emerge about the dead and, it seems, the not entirely dead.

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Even if you don't get caught up in the spell of this twisty ghost story, the theatricality of it all is fun. There's something rather refreshing about a work that seeks to get your imagination percolating mostly with just a colorful text, complemented by the occasional sound effect or visual enhancement.

Director Patrick Gorirossi makes imaginative use of the theater — the entire space, including backstage (I suggest sitting close to the center of the house) — and he knows pacing. The intermission-less show moves at a good clip.

Helping to keep that momentum going are two skilled performers, Grayson Owen and Sean Coe, who get deep into their multiple assignments and make the text tingle.

(Both men could teach some professional thespians in this town something about maintaining persuasive British accents. That said, on the day I attended, Grayson curiously slipped up on a French expression in the dialogue.)

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There may be moments when the actors swallow lines, or when the would-be scary stuff doesn't quite hit the spot — the title character isn't as much of a presence as I had hoped. Still, the production entertains, boosted by Christopher Flint's set and, especially, the nuances of Adrienne Gieszl's lighting and Brian M. Kehoe's sound design.

If you go

"The Woman in Black" runs through Nov. 5 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St. Tickets are $19 to $24. Go to fpct.org.

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