by Michael Dresdner
The Turn of the Screw at Centerstage pairs a deservedly famous, century-old psychological ghost story with surgically precise direction and an absolutely perfect cast in order to twist its audience through 90 riveting minutes of non-stop crescendo, leaving them dry-mouthed and spent. It’s a theatre experience you should not miss.
The story, if you don’t already know it, was written as a novella by Henry James in 1898, and has long been debated thanks to its delicious ambiguity. It’s liberally laced with overtones of religious and sexual repression, pedophilia, projection, fear, protective instinct, and the occult.
A young woman is hired as governess for two children, by an uncle who wants nothing to do with them and quickly exits the picture. She finds a homebound mute girl, Flora, and her older brother, Miles, who was just permanently expelled from boarding school for something apparently too disgusting to discuss. They occupy a country estate tended by housekeeper Mrs. Grose, who piecemeal fills in some of its chilling past. Their last governess, Miss Jessel, and a hired hand, Peter Quint, had carried on a torrid and unconcealed sexual affair before both died under somewhat odd circumstances.
Soon the governess starts seeing the ghosts of Jessel and Quint, and becomes convinced they are either in league with, or worse, manipulating the children for some nefarious, possibly sexual, ends. The pace builds to a gripping climax with another death and the complete dissolution of the household, but there is much left for the audience to decide. Did the children, or Mrs. Grose, also see the ghosts? Who was manipulating whom? Or for that matter did the governess actually see the ghosts and earnestly try to protect the children from them, or was she simply descending into her own destructive madness?
Director Alan Bryce crafted this superbly as a one-act play with a gripping pace that never lets up, nor lets go of the audience. A simple set (Ben Baird), mood enhancing lighting (Amy Silveria), a pair of ideal costumes (Rachel Wilkie), and some ghostly special effects (Christina Barrigan) supply the seamless underpinnings. What brings it all home, though, was Bryce’s choice of just two sterling actors to cover all the parts.
The governess is played by Helen Harvester, beautifully and adroitly filling out a most demanding role. She goes from innocent and exhilarating anticipation through the entire gamut of emotions to fear, aggressive determination, and quite possibly, pure madness. Throughout, she keeps it completely convincing, and eminently compelling.
Terry Edward Moore plays all the other parts; a narrator, a doctor, and the uncle, who all appear only briefly, as well as the major roles of young Miles and Mrs. Grose. He does it without ever changing costume, slipping quickly and seamlessly in and out of the various roles with attendant physical gestures and voices. His performance is so convincing that you quickly forget what he’s wearing or what his true gender is. It’s the epitome of great acting. Like the governess, he, too, traverses a huge range of emotional states and character aspects, from coolly detached to cripplingly overwrought. The last character, Flora, is not played, but rather her presence is implied by the actions and words of the two real actors.
The Turn of the Screw is but the opening salvo of Centerstage’s new season, and if this is any example of the quality we can expect, it’s going to be an amazing theatrical year.
The Turn of the Screw
Oct. 6 through Oct. 31, 2012