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The Turn of the Screw

Page to Stage: It works as literature, but The Turn of the Screw blossoms in local theater

By Brandon Burt
Posted // September 30,2009 - The mysterious and unknown fascinates us most. The reason Henry James’ best-known story has been adapted so many times may be that it’s so difficult to nail down. How can scriptwriters know they got it right when there is so much ambiguity in the source material?

This ambiguity must be what makes it such a tantalizing subject for reinterpretation. We can say for sure that The Turn of the Screw is about an erratic governess charged with the care of two spooky children. Beyond that, it’s hard to tell. Is it a ghost story? A psychological thriller? A perverse morality tale?

On the page, James’ longwinded literary style and deliberate pacing is hypnotic, drawing readers into the grim, overcast world of the story. But his labyrinthine page-long sentences, constructed out of complicated systems of deeply nested subordinate clauses, don’t always translate well to stage and screen. Jeffrey Hatcher’s play strips James’ florid prose down to its bare bones, leaving a gripping, laser-sharp narrative that brings the story’s creepiest aspects into focus without sacrificing its ghastly, atmospheric uncertainty.

A successful job interview with the children’s uncle (Jeremy W. Chase) lands the governess (Cassandra Stokes-Wylie) in a gloomy English country house, where she is introduced to young Flora by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Chase). After this, the Governess’ interactions with Flora and young Miles (Chase again) become progressively more alarming. The fact that the mute Flora is an invisible character— not portrayed, but conjured into the audience’s imagination by means of the actors’ responses—reinforces her relationship to the ghostly realm.

In fact, in its stark austerity, the production leaves a great deal to the imagination— which is how it achieves its visceral, gutwrenching impact. It’s amazing what a lighting designer with a good sense of timing and minimal equipment can accomplish.

One thing not left to the imagination is good, old-fashioned, scene-chewing, capital-A Acting. Chase, in his mercurial, multi-role performances, is heartbreaking as the spooky, troubled Miles, while Stokes-Wylie brings a taut, unexpected liveliness to the Governess. Both are well matched here, offering perceptive performances that are balanced and modulated to the intimate space.

This show is no walk in the park. I left feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. But, for all that, it made me happy; it was the first time I’ve seen an adaptation get the impact of James’ story exactly right.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW
Utah Theatre Artists Company
Sugar Space
616 E. Wilmington Ave. (2190 South)
Through Oct. 3
UtahTheatreArtists.com

 
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