Henry James’ 1898 ghost story The Turn of The Screw is steeped in ambiguity. Are there spirits alive in the countryside or are the demons more psychological in nature? Both explanations are terrifying, but unfortunately the terror of James’ tale is watered down at Vertigo Theatre.
Adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher, The Turn of The Screw tells the story of a young governess (Myla Southward) hired to take care of two orphaned children living in their uncle’s country home. The children’s uncle (Braden Griffiths) asks the governess not to bother him in London with any sort of communication. Given total charge, the inexperienced governess does the best she can with Miles, a troubled boy discharged from school, and Flora, a young girl who chooses not to speak. Strange events begin not long after the governess’ arrival, namely the appearance of ghosts. The housekeeper Mrs. Grose confesses that the previous governess, Miss. Jessel, died on the grounds, along with her lover Peter Quint. Fearing the children’s safety, the governess tries solving the mystery of the apparitions before evil overtakes the household.
Common to ghost stories, the wilderness hides many evil things, and here it is no different. The supernatural lurks in the garden and outer limits of the estate. Set designer Scott Reid has constructed a unique set where the gothic estate shares space with a flooded downstage area. The presence of live water works marvelously in showing the encroaching wilderness, or darkness. Narda McCarroll’s striking lighting work adds layers to the water by making it appear soft and still in some moments, then hard and violent in others. Yes, the actors become absolutely drenched by the end of it, and that’s delicious symbolism for any English majors in the audience. The trouble is, the inventive staging does little for Hatcher’s weak adaptation.
Hatcher’s stage adaptation calls for only two actors, with the male actor taking on multiple roles. Griffiths plays the uncle, Miles, Flora, and Mrs. Grose. Griffiths goes on his knees to play schoolboy Miles, then leaps up to play Mrs. Grose, a shrill old woman. The actor’s character transitions are more comical than anything, winning (perhaps) unintended laughs from the audience. They also become messy as the narrative nears its climax, since now all the characters come into play together.
And with fewer players, the narrative’s possible outcomes become limited too, taking away some of James’ original ambiguity.
Director Ron Jenkins keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, but even still the story never quite hits its groove. Hatcher’s adaptation has difficulty bringing together all its elements in a cohesive, compelling manner. The payoff rests in the spectacular visuals than in the plot. Nonetheless, Jenkins displays a good eye for blocking actors and producing frights.
Southward delivers a strong performance as the young governess thrust into a world of spirits, demons of the past. A little water does little to stifle Southward’s intensity as her character’s own sanity starts to crack under pressure. Transitions aside, Griffith plays the menace well here with his deep, booming voice. He stalks and creeps like a shadow.
Hatcher’s adaptation suffers from a limited cast of actors, and a loose delivery of James’ classic ghost story. Vertigo Theatre’s production of The Turn of The Screw delivers in the visual department, but fails to produce intrigue worthy of a visit.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Turn of The Screw runs March 12 – April 10 at Vertigo Theatre (The Playhouse).
For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.vertigotheatre.com/mystery-series