FORT WORTH Stephen Mallatratt’s play The Woman in Black, adapted from the Susan Hill novel, is a tricky show for a theater company making its debut. That doesn’t have as much to do with the utter importance of the dead-on technical cues and actors’ timing needed to make this ghost story chill spines in the audience — although that’s paramount.
It’s the danger that comes with the first lines spoken, from the character of Arthur Kipps. He moves downstage with a script in hand and starts reading dialogue, as if acting. And, as intended, he’s really bad. If you’re not familiar with this when seeing the inaugural production from Tarrant Actors Regional Theater, and you see Delmar H. Dolbier struggling with these lines, your first fear might be one of the perils of a theater company that no one’s familiar with yet.
But it doesn’t take long to move from “what have I stumbled into?” to a place of growing interest, followed by, not long after, complete absorption. Dolbier and director Allen Walker have done their jobs, as has Eric Dobbins, playing a younger actor hired by Kipps to re-enact a mysterious part of his history.
Although Dolbier ends up playing multiple roles, and he’s adept at switching among them and the accents, it’s Dobbins who keeps us engrossed in this story, especially as he returns to an uninhabited house on a bog — there’s always a bog, huh? — to play out what might have happened regarding the death of a child.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say that director Walker, who also handles the sound design that’s so crucial to a scary story, and set and lighting designer Bryan S. Douglas offer up thrills and chills. At the matinee attended for this review, there were several screams from audience members, which is always good for setting off a chain reaction of gasps from others who were already on the edge of their seats.
Dobbins, a TCU graduate who is relatively new on local stages, appropriately starts off as the fearless, somewhat egotistical actor eager to take on this assignment. He starts to give in to his own fears, even while exhibiting bravery as if there’s always an audience watching. His arc from a person who did not believe in ghosts to one who’s having a harder time being skeptical of such things follows through in a believable, natural shift.
There are two minor complaints, though. One being Catherine L. Brown’s costume for Dobbins, with a busted seam on the pants and visible threads on his suit — the Sanders Theatre in the Fort Worth Community Arts Center is a small space, after all. The other has nothing to do with the production, except for our experience of it, and that’s the choice to sell popcorn at intermission, letting audience members chomp kernels and crumple bags during the second act. That’s a dispiriting trend in theater in general, but especially in a play in which complete silence is important, so much so that the possibility of extra noise should be avoided.
Even so, this marks one of the strongest theatrical debuts in recent memory. TART lives up to the line in the play that advises “one must not ask how the magic works, one must appreciate the magic.”