Good exorcise

If we stage critics think our deadlines are cruel to us, they can be murder to actors -- especially when a preview performance must be reviewed. Psychological preparation is everything for a stage actor, because that safety net known as "retakes" in the film world doesn't exist on stage. The notion of "previews" -- a discounted run-through in front of a general audience, with an understanding on their part that the actors are granted latitude to feel out the contours of their roles -- often seems silly to audience members ("What difference can it possibly make between a Friday preview and a Saturday opening?"), but it's the confidence-building permission the performers give themselves to do a little crawling before they (hopefully) spring onto both feet on opening night.

And it's a permission often denied by critics, who are slaves to the editor, the copy editor, and the press' time lines, not to mention shows competing for attention. The upcoming weekend alone will feature the debuts of about half a dozen major shows in Dallas. So two very talented North Texas actors, Ashley Wood and John Wayne Shafer, gamely consented to have the last preview of The Woman in Black witnessed by this critic. Fort Worth's Circle Theatre brings us the area premiere of this calamitously popular London stage show, which for the better part of a decade now has become a latter-day Deathtrap or The Mouse Trap, selling out houses season after season.

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a novel by Susan Hill, the play is about as pure a specimen of theater as you're likely to find, in the sense that it's not only about theater and set inside one, but it also employs almost every live element you can think of -- lighting, sound, movement, and smoke effects tailored to kindle a mood of sorrowful dread. By intermission, I saw why co-stars Wood and Shafer might have been hesitant to give up even one preview night and have their show critiqued. By the second act, both are in a virtual nonstop ballet with the technical designers in this tale of a cocky actor hired to exorcise a haunting episode from a solicitor's past. Neither they nor director George H. Brown should have worried -- there was not a single squeak of training wheels on their preview performance, which as the weekends go on will guarantee ticketbuyers an unforgettable autumn theatergoing experience.

Ashley Wood plays The Actor, who meets with the disconsolate Arthur Kipps (Shafer), a man who wants guidance on how to narrate a particularly difficult (that is, supernatural) experience he had as a younger man to doubting family and friends. He wants to learn "expression and delivery" from The Actor, because he feels such thespian disciplines will help him gain wisdom from and therefore control over an encounter that has scarred him for life.

The Woman in Black becomes a memory play, with The Actor portraying Kipps and Kipps playing numerous other characters he met while helping organize the estate of a certain Mrs. Drablow of Eel Marsh House, a creaky old mansion cut off from civilization by dangerous swamps. We shouldn't be bothered that John Wayne Shafer as clumsy Mr. Kipps suddenly displays a schizophrenic facility with faces and voices, for at this point Theater with a capital "T" has invaded his body, and the story of how the 90-year-old Mrs. Drablow's scandalous arrangement with her vengeful sister has ruined the lives of strangers even after the women's deaths must be told. This play becomes a sort of cheeky commentary about the danger for stage actors of tapping into too much emotional authenticity. Ashley Wood keeps breaking character, changing from Mr. Kipps back to The Actor to compliment Mr. Kipps' speedy progress as an actor (you might want to read that sentence again). Yet in his arrogance, he can only too late see that the performance is overtaking both of them and that events are happening onstage that definitely weren't on the rehearsal schedule.

It adds enormously to the production experience, of course, that the two leads in The Woman in Black aren't just versatile artists, but charismatic ones too. The bearish, clever Mr. Shafer gets the more impressively equipped actor's playground as Arthur Kipps playing multiple roles, and he uses the facilities with little apparent effort and much pleasure. As always, Ashley Wood wears youth, good looks, and crisp ability without annoying the hell out of you by seeming aware of any of them. What his role lacks in variety he more than compensates for with a tumbling, rolling physical commitment to the part of The Actor. I hope to see The Woman in Black again before it closes, to watch these performers unburdened by the presence of a critic at a preview really cut loose with the marvelous, occasionally scream-triggering material. I have no complaints about what I did see, but I suspect once Wood and Shafer relax a little more as actors, I, as an audience member, will reap the benefits. Along with their confidence mastering the production tricks, my apprehension will increase watching this ominous ghost story unfold.

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Jimmy Fowler