Ghost Story

The Turn of the Screw delivers thrills and chills.

As I was going up the stair I saw a man who wasn't there.

He wasn't there again today.

I wish, I wish he'd go away. -- Hugh Mearns

Emily Paton Davies watches over Michael Morgan in 
The Turn of the Screw.
Emily Paton Davies watches over Michael Morgan in The Turn of the Screw.

In Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, an unworldly young governess is employed by a wealthy Londoner to care for his young niece, who lives in the Essex countryside. He's an odd man -- stiff and prickly, yet seductive. He tells the governess not to get in touch with him in the future, no matter what troubles she encounters, and warns her that she will be lonely. ("Do you fear loneliness?" he asks.) When she reaches the house, however, she finds a kindly old housekeeper and a delightful -- though mute -- little girl named Flora. Later, Flora's brother, Miles, returns from school, having been expelled for reasons that are never explained. Despite a penchant for pounding out Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre on the piano, he, too, enchants the governess. And then the people who aren't there start appearing: the ghostly figures of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and of Jessel's lover, Peter Quint.

Hmmm. Old, creaky house. Shadowy lake. Mysterious Mr. Rochester-like employer. Possibly demonic children. Any aficionado of Gothic fiction would tell the governess to run like hell, but she doesn't. Convinced the ectoplasmic lovers intend to inhabit the bodies of Miles and Flora and continue their affair, she decides she'll save her charges.

Naturally, there are whispers of repressed sexual longing here, and perhaps also of practices the Victorians would call "unnatural." Readers and critics have been arguing for decades over whether Henry James intended his novella as a legitimate ghost story or a study of the governess's disintegrating mind. This Modern Muse production seems to favor the latter interpretation.

Hatcher has trimmed the story and condensed the time frame. The set is suggestive rather than realistic -- not much furniture, a stairway, dry ice along the floor to indicate the mists from the lake -- and Brian Freeland provides appropriate sounds such as a heartbeat and strange voices. As directed by Gabriella Cavallero and Stephen J. Lavezza, this isn't exactly a frightening production, but it is icy, dark and elegant, and much of its success can be attributed to the two performers. Emily Paton Davies brings strength and clarity to the role of the governess, making her innocent, even a little silly at the beginning, but harder and stronger -- albeit mistakenly resolute -- as the action progresses. Even as you come to understand the extent of her personal destructiveness, you understand her motives, and you feel for her. Michael Morgan plays every other role, parts as diverse as that of the elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and ten-year-old Miles. Still, he never resorts to caricature, making each character real and distinctive. Mrs. Grose does have a peculiar way of saying "Miss" -- it sounds something like "Meeees" -- but she's very believable on the whole. And Miles is quite heartbreaking, a scared ten-year-old peeping through the story's layers of mystification and dissimulation.

It's a shame this smart, spooky show closes just before Halloween.

 
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