January 15, 2008

Novel rendition of James ghost story serves up classic scares

What makes The Turn of the Screw so fascinating? It has proved to be the most enduring and well known of Henry James’s works; its numerous adaptations to both stage and screen could form their own literary sub-genre. Why, of all James’s complex and engrossing visions, is this seemingly straightforward ghost story still the most popular?

As anyone who has read The Turn of the Screw can attest, the novel is not actually as simple as it seems. In fact, there is a real question as to whether the ghosts exist at all, outside of the main character’s fevered, romantic imagination. There’s something especially frightening about this work, and it has nothing to do with ghosts. The moral opacity of children, the strangely indefinite nature of evil, the vaguely sexualized and often demonic voice of the young governess narrator—all these things, to quote the book, lead us into “a darker obscure.” Jessica Thebus’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Glencoe’s Writers’ Theatre, written by Jeffrey Hatcher, is alive to these frightening turns in the novel. Even with just two actors and no ghosts ever shown, this Turn is almost as terrifying as the original.

The Writers’ Theatre doesn’t look like much at first, even when you consider its almost 15 years of star-studded productions. Situated at the back of a bookstore (and, since 2003, at a small stage nearby), it’s not the reassuringly grand sight you expect to see after having made the long trek up to Glencoe. Yet the 50-seat venue transforms when the lights go down into a dark grotto of curtains and candles that evokes not so much the physical setting of The Turn of the Screw as the mental landscape it traverses.

In the novel, the rakish bachelor who hires a governess for his niece and nephew is often talked about but not directly seen. The Writers’ Theatre production opens with a strange, disconcerting interview between him and the aspiring governess. Kymberly Mellen plays the young woman, full of trepidation, hope, and romantic fancy as she is interviewed by the bachelor (LaShawn Banks). Described in the novel as charming, gay, and kind, the bachelor of the play is aggressive, cold, and somewhat forward, yet powerfully attractive. He is more like Rochester of Jane Eyre than Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility. This strikes me as a compelling change given the governess’s taste for romance and her allusion, in the novel, to Jane Eyre itself. In this play, she even openly entertains notions of romance with the bachelor, something only indirectly alluded to in the novel.

Once she arrives at the great house, the governess is thrilled by the beauty and charm of her little pupils, though understandably nervous and apprehensive about her duties. She strikes up a friendship with a kindly servant named Mrs. Grose, again played by LaShawn Banks. Flora, the younger child, is never shown. The older, Miles, arrives a little later preceded by a letter indicating his expulsion from his school for an unspecified infraction.

Mellen truly shines as the governess. She is a fascinating mess of emotional ups and downs, insecurities, whimsies, and suppressed spite. Her poor, disappointed life (the play adds a little suggestion that her father was a brute, which is not in the novel) leads her to first love the clever, well mannered, upper-class children and then resent them for conspiring against her. The sexual undercurrent of her relationship with Miles is strongly emphasized in the play. The gothic set, with recesses shrouded by curtains, adds to the sense of the mania that gradually takes hold of her. Unfortunately, Thebus thought it a good idea to have her actors quickly pull the curtains back loudly a number of times during quiet moments, making the audience jump—a pretty cheap scare compared with the other horrors on stage.

This brings me to the very few missteps in this production: the portrayal of Miles by, yet again, LaShawn Banks, and the inclusion of a cheap device that evaporates some of the ambiguity of the novel. Banks, perhaps taking inspiration from such movies as The Shining and The Others, makes his Miles a sullen, ethereal, and altogether un-childlike presence. Yet the novel suggests nothing of the kind. Miles is an enigma, but at least he is outwardly charming, jolly, and talkative. He is a beautiful child. No one would be so incurious about Miles’s school record as the governess is if he were as Banks characterizes him.

The second blunder is the innovation of a locket that serves to totally undercut the possibility that the ghosts are real. This removes a layer of ambiguity and firmly tilts us in the direction of believing the governess is insane. I think it’s an unnecessary—and not particularly credible—clarification in a supremely ambiguous story.

Despite these problems, the play does a remarkably good job of bringing this endlessly fascinating and terrifying tale to life. A thoughtful theatergoer will come out of it happily, with more questions than answers and a shiver lodged in his spine.