It’s only fitting, director Tom Width says before “The Woman in Black” begins, that Swift Creek Mill Theatre should employ a “ghost light” — a single bare bulb left burning onstage all night, every night, to prevent staff from tripping and falling.
But at Swift Creek Mill, a building now more than 300 years old and thought to harbor its own share of spirits, the light we see onstage also serves another superstitious purpose: to ward off any ghosts that might haunt the premises.
Now the “Actor” (Matt Hackman) douses it, and we descend from steady, reliable illumination into the brooding shadows of “The Woman in Black,” the story of mild-mannered Arthur Kipps, solicitor to the late Mrs. Drablow of Eel Marsh House in the English town of Crythin Gifford.
Adapted for the stage with workmanlike pacing by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s 1983 novel but given visual and aural luster by Width’s production team, “The Woman in Black” tracks Kipps’ journey to the old woman’s funeral and the strange goings-on that attend it.
The story, presented somewhat awkwardly as a play-within-a-play, introduces the Actor to an aging Kipps (Bill Blair), who has turned haunting memories of his experiences at Eel Marsh House into a bloated drama he wants to perform onstage in order to purge his terror.
“I can carry this burden no longer!” he shrieks. “It must be told!”
Agreeing to lend Kipps his Victorian venue, the Actor then suggests placing himself in Kipps’ role to lend the tale dramatic heft.
Thus, with the Actor now playing Kipps and the old man taking on multiple supporting roles, “The Woman in Black” embraces a familiar — if always delicious — horror conceit: A callow stranger arrives in a foggy, brooding locale only to find the entire town spooked and tight-lipped about the circumstances surrounding a big gray house.
Hackman is excellent as the younger Kipps whose starchy British formality eventually dissolves as he keeps encountering the specter of a woman with a pale, wasted face.
Blair, who stokes a shambling twitchiness as the elder Kipps that first evokes Herman Munster of the 1960s TV sitcom, makes every town character that comes later compelling and sympathetic as the truths of Eel Marsh House are revealed.
Fully understanding that less is often more, Width guides the story into ever-darker and claustrophobic corners, setting Maura Lynch Cravey’s tan and taupe costume design against blackened chambers, headstones and relentless scenes of night.
But Joe Doran and his six-person lighting crew, finding their twisting, turning way down through the spectrum from that original, beaming ghost light bulb, might rightly be called the stars of the show, which offers up so many fascinating light cues and fluctuations — along with Paul Deiss’ creepy sound effects — that light and sound operator Sheri Oyan must have had to grow two extra arms to man the board.
“The Woman in Black” does tend to bog down in its own detail and surroundings, which sometimes deepens the horror but too often leaves the story toggling between British fussiness and full-on fright.
But the show’s visual sleight-of-hand still offers up a sense of free-floating peril, even if this tale never tells us why pain and loss seem to permeate the afterlife or how we might learn to live alongside such mysteries.
To find those answers, you’d need to linger longer at Swift Creek Mill than this show’s two-hour running time.
Just don’t plan to spend the night.