Balagula Theatre has tackled a remarkable variety of themes and material in its short tenure, from the noir humor of Martin McDonagh's Pillowman to quick-paced comedic romps like The Mystery of Irma Vep to last year's inaugural season of existential theater.
Co-directors Natasha Williams and Ryan Case are known for artistic risk-taking and intellectually heavy- hitting fare, like this season's Marx in Soho.
But sumptuous British period piece ghost stories? Not so much.
Their latest production, The Woman in Black, an Edwardian era supernatural thriller based on the novel by Susan Hill and cleverly adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt, might appear to be a departure in programming for the troupe. Sunday's opening night performance proved otherwise.
While the frightening tale entertains on the surface, director Williams is careful to cultivate an exploration of the play's deceptively complex deeper themes, like the ability of storytelling to exorcise personal demons, or society's deep discomfort and fascination with the unexplained and macabre.
With two of Central Kentucky's best actors at her disposal and a bevy of technical upgrades to her theater space, Williams crafts a spellbinding evening of atmospheric suspense and terror.
Adam Luckey and Case turn in haunting performances as, respectively, Arthur Kipps, a young man who has experienced a supernatural trauma, and a character simply billed as Actor, an anonymous London thespian whom Kipps has hired to help him tell his tale.
Mallatratt used the convention of a play within a play to cleverly bypass extraneous narration from the novel while treating the audience to self-aware winks and nods from the realm of Edwardian theater. As Kipps and the Actor meet to rehearse Kipps' tale, it takes on a life of its own, forming the main thrust of the drama.
Luckey and Case are a formidable pair, and their chemistry and execution have only improved since their last two-man show, Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening with the Illuminati), also directed by Williams. This trio, much like Balagula Theatre itself, has improved over time.
Luckey carefully negotiates the halting, shy transformation of Kipps, sometimes comically and sometimes daringly documenting Kipps' reluctant but successful training as an actor. It's funny to watch Luckey portray a bad actor in the script's earlier moments before hitting his stride as a fictional performer.
The transformation of Case's character does not come until the play's shocking finale, but he nonetheless carries the onus of the plot and pacing forward while shepherding the play's emotional tone. As he dives more and more into re- creating Kipps' tale, he cultivates a kind of creeping crescendo of mystery, fear and, eventually, terror.
The play's pacing is one of its primary strengths. Williams lets her actors take long pauses of discovery, slowly building tension, yet somehow prevents the show from dragging. Case's slow discovery of a haunted nursery, for instance, is given plenty of time to develop in silence before chilling the audience with its revelation.
Perhaps it is Randy Hall's Edwardian set design combined with Tom Willis' lighting — atmospheric swinging lanterns cast flickering shadows across the stage — but Williams and company manage to reproduce the feeling of being swept into good, scary novel on a rainy day, the kind that, after you finish it at 3 a.m., you have to sleep with the light on.