Minimalist Horror

Henry James’s ghost story “The Turn of the Screw” has intrigued generations of readers as well as artists. British composer Benjamin Britten turned it into an opera. The 1898 story was also filmed (and retitled The Innocents) with the late Deborah Kerr as the governess sent to Bly, a remote country estate, to care for the niece and nephew of a London bachelor who has become their guardian. Jeffrey Hatcher’s 1999 stage production is a bare-bones tour de force for two actors that takes some structural liberties but preserves the frissons. Among the tweaks Hatcher makes is to assign all the secondary roles, including that of Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, to the male actor and to make Flora, the niece, so shy that she doesn’t speak at all. The play therefore elevates Miles, the young boy, to the center of the battle between the governess and the phantoms. The whole is performed without scenery or costume changes. Still, in Don K. Williams’s beautifully directed production, James’s story feels distilled rather than downsized.

Hatcher’s play compresses the action into seven days, announced like a diary by Melissa Pinsly’s young, callow and romantically infatuated governess. Hatcher introduces the possibility of her repressed sexuality in the first scene, with subtle humor and yet more sexual innuendo than James could employ. “I need a woman,” announces Steve Cook’s uncle to the prospective governess, referring to the job of raising his wards. And when she agrees to the stipend, he says, “A satisfied woman, our very goal in life.” After she accepts the position with barely contained excitement, he notes dryly, “I have seduced you.”

The great critic Edmund Wilson pointed out in his 1938 essay The Ambiguities of Henry James (just republished in a collection by Library of America) that it wasn’t until 1924 that a canny critic noticed that only the governess sees the ghosts. The question of whether they are real or figments of her overly romantic imagination and a repressed sexual infatuation with the uncle enhances the eeriness of the tale. (Both the film and the opera include visible revenants.) Hatcher’s treatment adds a weirdly incestuous element, establishing the intentions of the male and female ghosts, Peter Quint and Mrs. Jessel, to inhabit the bodies of the innocent children and be reunited.

Once at Bly, the governess (who goes unnamed, as in the story) meets Mrs. Grose, and the sightings begin. Pinsley negotiates the various mood swings of the governess—from elation to apprehension to an almost evangelical hysteria and determination—very well. Cook, dressed in a frock coat for all his characters, differentiates them vocally or, in the case of Miles, by adding a sullen hunching to his shoulders.

Gorgeous lighting from Karl Chmielewski adds immeasurably to the mood. He creates deep shadows upstage that the characters draw back into, and from which the ghosts materialize in shadows, insubstantially. Chmielewski also uses sidelighting in a noirish way, and his choice of colors, notably indigo and amber, is just as evocative in setting the right tones for scenes.

The actors add most of the sound effects. Cook, for example, announces the time of a chiming clock. They make creaking noises and whooshing noises, and occasionally Hatcher contributes to the atmosphere of dread a stunning line like “The house hissed of snakes.” Although the narrative slackens occasionally, the play builds to a wild, insane climax, more effective than James’s sturdy prose evokes on the page.

The original story begins with a framing device, but James drops it by the end. Hatcher, however, returns to it, and we learn what happens to Flora and the governess. The coda is dry, black, and ironic, and leaves little doubt that the governess is a figure to beware.

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