11/2/2022 THE TURN OF THE SCREW Georgia Ensemble Theatre
SEDUCED BY DREAD
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.
In fact, as we are told by an anonymous (male) story-teller at the top of the show from the top of a staircase, we are about to embark on a narrative in which TWO children experience a “visitation,” sufficiently doubling that “turn of the screw” into the dread that such stories seduce in our own souls.
Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, first serialized in Collier’s Weekly in January 1898, began its life as a simple ghost story – governess, Jane-Eyre-romantic fantasies filling her mind, becomes obsessed with visions of the ghosts of her predecessor and a randy workman, believing the ghosts are preying upon her innocent charges, Miles and Flora.
But James, in his wisdom, created a bookful of ambiguities, things left unsaid, unexplained, unnamed, unknown. And in the final analysis, is anything more terrifying than that which remains unknown, even after the comforting house lights cast aside the gothic gloom unfolding on stage?
And, since its publication, The Turn of the Screw has generated a cottage industry of adaptations (plays, movies, even an opera) and interpretations, usually filtered through the writer’s personal politics or obsessions.
Is the (unnamed) governess an unreliable narrator?
Are the ghosts real or figments of her imagination?
Is she the product of Victorian sexual repression, of a motherless religious upbringing, of childhood trauma, of unspoken abuse?
Is the story a Marxist metaphor for the heartlessness of the upper class, for the revulsion towards romances between classes?
Is Peter Quint’s first appearance atop a phallic tower mere pre-Freudian sexual symbology?
Is Miles truly evil or simply mischievous?
The adaptation on stage at Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble theatre was created in 1996 by Jeffrey Hatcher, and wallows in a plethora of ambiguities. Two actors, one male, one female play all roles. Flora remains unseen, mimed, a ghost-of-our-minds, but still evoking an overwhelmingly maternal instinct in the governess. The female actor plays the governess, on stage throughout, shedding unreliable narrator red-flags like nightmares following a trauma, even as she sheds layers of Victorian costume like armor. The male actor plays multiple roles, the narrator at the top of the stairs, the children’s cold and heartless uncle, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, Miles, perhaps more.
That Miles is played by an adult in fact layers a no-doubt intentional aura of improper sexual attraction between the boy and his governess, presaged by an initial scene in which the uncle seduces the governess into taking the job with an attitude that would get him canceled and sanctioned in our own more (allegedly) proper post-Victorian ethos. Most noticeably, Miles’ final fate is left open. Did the ghosts claim his soul or was he freed by the escape of his tormenting governess? James’ final paragraph tells us the boy’s heart had stopped, but is his narrator trustworthy? Mr. Hatcher keeps it unclear.
A skeletal set looms out of the dark, unfinished staircase, platform, window, little else. No props. No furnishings. A barren mindscape filled with shadow, with peripheral movements, with echo, with the mind worm wail of a flute folk melody that I know I’ve heard before (was it used in the soundtrack of Barry Lyndon? Perhaps.).
Christina Leidel brings to the Governess an over-the-top hysteria, lending credence to the psychoanalytic interpretation of the story. But if she only imagines the ghosts, how is she able to describe Peter Quint so accurately to Mrs. Grose. Or is that conversation also a figment of her mind? She grows increasingly manic and wild-eyed, totally becoming as much of a terror as any imagined dragons. As her scene partner(s), Daniel Thomas May makes a welcome (and long overdue) return to an Atlanta stage, convincingly becoming man, woman, and child. These are all performances filled with intelligence and passion and are everything I expect from this story.
They are ably aided by James Donadio’s direction, keeping the dread ever-increasing, the pace ever-more-manic, the transitions ever-more-blurred. Costume Designer Joanna Schmink, Scenic Designer Jamie Bullins, Sound Designer Winston Johnson, Lighting Designer Elisabeth Cooper together create a Tech Ensemble that perfectly enmeshes us in its tapestry, no in its WEB of dread and, ultimately, horror.
Will anyone not familiar with the story appreciate the nuance, the ambiguities, the perfect capture of James’ story and mood. As one who has seen many versions of this story (including Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera), I cannot say. I did overhear one elderly gentleman in the lobby post-show saying, “I didn’t understand what was going on at minute one, and I didn’t understand what was going on at minute 90” (the show is performed without intermission, as it should be), but he seemed to be saying it with approval, with a smile on his face.
The Turn of the Screw is a wonderful story for a dark scary night, a remarkable production for a discerning audience jaded from too many slash-and-gash horror films and series, too many Haunted House walk-throughs.
And it is perfect proof that the unknown can be, should be, will always be, a seducer, a smiling face in the window that reminds us that dread is a welcome place to float.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #GET #TurnOfTheScrew)