Readers unfamiliar with specific plot points in the original story should be aware that some plot details are discussed in the second paragraph; this critic may be mistaken in assuming that most readers have previous exposure to the story in one or more of its previous versions.
With the growing popularity of what has become an annual Halloween season rather than just All Hallows Eve, it was a wise decision by the co-founders of Simple Machine Theatre to present “The Turn of the Screw”, widely viewed as the ultimate ghost story. Only the second production in the company’s history, the play is an approximately 80 minute adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher of Henry James’ 1898 novella, one of many versions over the years. The story has been televised (in 1959 with Ingrid Bergman), filmed (in 1961 as “The Innocents” with Deborah Kerr, and numerous subsequent films), composed as an opera by no less than Benjamin Britten, and done even as a ballet. In this version, the co-founders of the company are themselves playing all of the parts. Anna Waldron appears as the unnamed Governess and Stephen Libby portrays The Man as well as the other parts, including a ten-year-old boy, and the maid Mrs. Grose. In the appropriately Victorian setting of the Gibson House Museum in Boston (and the Taylor House Bed and Breakfast in Jamaica Plain), it’s a wonderfully eerie experience. Seldom is theater so close up and chillingly personal. M. Bevin O’Gara (responsible for the incomparable direction of SpeakEasy Stage’s “Clybourne Park” last season as well as their production of “Tribes” this season) tackles this famous ghost tale with her typical ingenuity. The ambiguity of the original source material is preserved; the genius of James (whose own sexual issues have been debated over the years) lies in the fact that he never appears to take a definitive stand on any of the differing conclusions drawn by his readers, and this production honors that.
The title “The Turn of the Screw” is a metaphor for the governess’ fate, since a screw’s purpose is to tighten, but if done too tightly, will break what it is intended to hold in place. It tells the story of what happened (or may not have happened) to a young governess assigned by an absentee uncle to care for his recently orphaned niece Flora (in this version, unlike past ones, refusing to speak), in his country home, Bly. Soon after her arrival, the nephew Miles is sent home from his school for unnamed but seemingly sinister actions. There follow some ghostly visions, as well as strange occurrences, in which the children somehow may be complicit, or which may be the result of the governess’ own fear and imagination. She sees (or perhaps doesn’t) a strange man in a nearby tower, later identified by Mrs. Grose as the former valet Peter Quint, now dead; another ghostly figure seen by her (or maybe not) is identified by Mrs. Grose as the previous governess, Miss Jessel. They are described as having been involved in an intimate affair, perhaps somehow even involving the children themselves. The ending, already known to most who are familiar with one or more prior versions, turns the screw so tightly as to leave Miles falling into the governess’ arms, dead of causes not explained but which would be consistent with either interpretation. Either there is evil afoot on the part of the mysterious children and their relationship to the spirits, or there is madness on the part of the governess.
Simple Machine’s co-founders have made another wise decision in their casting of themselves in the various roles. Waldron and Libby (married in real life) are both terrific. Waldron’s Governess evolves from wide-eyed wonderment and anticipation to apprehension and to ultimate hysteria, logically and irrevocably bringing about her own destiny. Libby’s various turns are each individually brilliant, including his prepubescent (if Miles was ever that) waddle down the staircase. Both evidence the care given their character development by dialogue consultant Liz Hayes, and are aided by the perfectly chosen costume design by Emily Woods Hogue as well as by the intentionally creepy lighting design by Ian W. King.
Whatever the nature of the cause of all this, be it evil or insanity, is left up to the audience, just as it was to James’ readers. Scholars of literature, film, opera, ballet and now theater will forever take sides on what in this tale is real or surreal. The only definite is that, in this staging, it is engrossing theater for the discriminating theatergoer. Just don’t neglect to take ghostbusterly precautions, lest you find yourself the victim of one screwed turn too many.