The Breckenridge Backstage Theatre will present “The Woman in Black,” directed by Rick Bernstein, starting with a champagne opening on Friday, Jan. 3, and running on select days through Saturday, Jan. 25.
The story is based on the short novel of the same title by Susan Hill, and Jim Hunt, of Denver, plays the protagonist, a man who seeks to exorcise the ghosts of his past.
“It’s about a gentlemen who, when he was younger, had a horrific thing happen to him involving a ghost,” Hunt said. “He goes on with his life, and on a particular Christmas Eve, he’s with family and they’re telling ghost stories and they say, ‘Come on, surely you have one.’”
Boy, does he ever, Hunt said, a story that would make all the other stories of the evening sound silly. The thought of this fantastic ghost story gets him so riled up he decides he needs to write it out, to free himself of the story’s terrible hold. The older man decides to hire an actor, a representation of himself as a younger man, who ends up playing the role of the older man through flashback.
“He reads the manuscript and says, ‘Let’s dramatize it,’” Hunt said. “He becomes me, and I become the other characters in the story. It’s a flashback story, and the setting is an empty theater, so we just use whatever is there.”
Basic theater props such as a wingback chair, a trunk and a freestanding doorway take on multiple personalities as the ghost story is revealed, encouraging theatergoers to use their imagination and decide for themselves whether they have seen a ghost.
Staging a ‘two-hander’
Josh Hartwell, of Denver, plays the role of the hired actor. He said doing the show with a cast of only two actors, a “two-hander” in theater terms, causes the audience to focus more on the main characters.
“In this particular play, it asks the audience right away to use their imagination,” he said. “There’s a lot of story telling and its not done with traditional props and set. I think the fact that it’s two people telling the story — they let themselves get carried away with it.”
Hartwell has done a few other small-cast plays and has also played opposite Hunt in other productions, including last year’s Backstage production of “A Christmas Carol.” Through the years, the two men have become best friends, which adds to their on-stage rapport.
“It certainly builds a great relationship with the other actor, artistic and personal,” Hartwell said of the two-hander. “That was one of the appealing factors was that I got to do the play with Jim. You really have to trust the other person and you have to allow yourself to be trusted by the other actor, more so than with a large ensemble cast.”
Though the play lasts less than two hours with an intermission, it includes more words than either actor has put into his head in a while, Hunt said.
“So we have lots of dialogue — one thing the actor does is convert the narrative to dialogue,” he said. “There’s still narrative sections where you are being told by one and the other is acting it. … It’s pretty much down to the two of you. We never leave the stage except to grab something and then we’re back on. You don’t have that moment to catch your breath and get a drink.”
Intimate show, intimate setting
“The Woman in Black” is a good fit for the intimate quarters of the Backstage Theatre.
“In a large space, it would be harder to make the connection with the characters, the actors,” Hartwell said. “It’s a good time for it because people are just off the holidays and people get into that mode where they don’t know what to do in January, and this a removal from the holidays, a completely different direction. Even though Christmas is mentioned, it’s not a Christmas story — it’s a haunting play, it’s a haunted play — and I think it’s a good escape from that kind of New Year’s blues.”
Though there is no profanity in the play, the dialogue is fairly intellectual and the ghost story might be a bit too scary for a young child, Hunt said.
“It relies very much on audience listening and being able to imagine, which to me is the best kind of theater,” he said. “It’s a really chilling tale. I saw it twice in London, and both times the reviews said it was a ‘tour de force with two actors and a spine-tingling ghost story.’”
The Breckenridge Backstage Theatre offers a café-style pre-show atmosphere in the lobby with mixed drinks and snacks. “The Woman in Black” is presented through special arrangement with Samuel French Inc. Season sponsors are The Andrea-Mennen Family Foundation and King and Susan Pouw. For more information on Breckenridge Backstage Theatre’s 40th anniversary season, visit www.backstagetheatre.org.