Do you believe in the unspeakable?
The irony of the tag-line for The Turn of the Screw, now playing at the Crossley Theatre in Hollywood, is that its horrors are never seen, only spoken of - at first in furtive whispers, eventually in escalating outbursts of fear and desperation that intensify to a crescendo more devastating than any visible manifestation. Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of Henry James' novel is a ghost story without ectoplasm - indeed, without sets or props, only actors using their voices to bring the unspeakable and the unseen to vivid life in our mind's eye.
For the first few decades after its publication in 1898, James' Turn of the Screw was regarded simply as a ghost story - a "potboiler" (in the author's words) written to earn a buck and keep a fire under the kettle. (The title refers to the presence of children, who add another "turn of the screw" to the horror.) In the early part of the 20th Century, a psychoanalytic interpretation was popularized, with critics such as Edmund Wilson suggesting that the story's two ghosts existed only in the mind of an unreliable first-person narrator, a nameless governess overseeing the upbringing of two children in a magnificent, isolated house in the English countryside. Since then, every adaptation has had to grapple with the question, "Are the ghosts real or delusions?" Perhaps the most well-known theatrical version (thanks to its translation into a stylish 1961 film) is William Archibald's The Innocents, which did an impressive job of getting the story out of the governess's head and onto the stage, where the audience could see what was happening. In contrast, the clever strategy of Hatcher's 1996 play is that it puts us back inside the governess's head, framing the story as a presentation of her contemporaneous diary; unable to see anything but the actors, we must take the words of her diary and fill the empty space on stage with what we imagine the reality behind those words to be.
Hired by a bachelor uncle to take care of his late brother's children, the Governess at first finds her situation a happy one. But the situation soon darkens. Miles, the boy, has been thrown out of school for mysterious reason, which he is reluctant to discuss. The Governess begins seeing the ghosts of her predecessor, a Miss Jessel, and the uncle's valet, Peter Quint. After learning that the two were involved in a sordid affair, possibly involving the children as witnesses, the Governess concludes that the spirits want to possess the children in order to resume their physical depravities. The Governess believes she can exorcise the supernatural influence if she can get Miles to acknowledge Quint's presence by speaking his name out loud. She succeeds, though with unexpected results. (James' ending is perhaps the most devastating sucker punch in English literature.)
Besides the absence of sets, Hatcher's adaptation is notable for telling its story with only two actors, one playing the Governess and one playing all the other roles (the Uncle, housekeeper Mrs. Gross, and little Miles, in particular). This further distances us from a sense of objective reality, suggesting that we're not seeing the actual characters but the Governess's version of them.
The potential pitfall in this approach is that, with little to see, the play could become monotonous. Under the direction of Robertson Dean, the Actor's Co-op production avoids this with some clever staging and lighting. Surrounded by seats against all four walls, the action takes place in the center of the theatre. Much of the lighting is set on the floor; depending on your seat, you may see an actor fully lit or back-lit in silhouette. Light creates shadow; shadow creates a sense of space extending beyond what we can see. With the action sometimes extending into the corners of the room, there is a nagging anticipation of some horror lurking on the edge of peripheral vision, especially when the Governess stops to stare at the unseen figure of Miss Jessel.
In short, the production does everything it can to create a dark canvass that the audience can paint with their own version of Quint and Jessel. But all of this only works if the actors can bring life to the words - and they do. Isaac Wade gets the more showy task, playing multiple roles and making them all distinct. Any talented actor could probably manage the various mannerisms needed to distinguish a charming Uncle from an old housekeeper from a young boy; the trick is to not show off the technique but simply to let the characters shine through, which Wade does admirably.
Natalie Hope Macmillan has less opportunity to show off in the role of the Governess; her task is more subtle, playing a character who may not see all she claims but who is nonetheless sympathetic in her efforts to confront the menace she sense. Whether her young charges are haunted by spirits or simply by horrible memories (of the death of their parents and of what transpired between Jessel and Quint), the Governess is in over her head, trapped in a situation with no hope of calling in reinforcements. (The house is in the middle of nowhere, and the Uncle has made it clear he wants never to be bothered under any circumstances.) Macmillan carefully turns the screws tighter and tighter until she and Wade play out their final tragic confrontation with the ghost (real or imagined) of Peter Quint, hitting a thunderous crescendo that fades into the quiet of final, devastating twist.
When we reviewed a previous staging of Hatcher's play back in 2006, we found it interesting but full of unrealized potential; as hard as the cast and crew tried, they didn't quite get where they needed to be. The Actor's Co-op does get there, turning the screws so tightly that the audience can't even scream, only gasp in relief when the lights go up.
The Turn of the Screw continues at the Actors Co-op Crossley Theatre through November 20, with performances on Fridays & Sundays at 8pm and on Sundays at 2:30pm. The address is 1760 N. Gower Street in Hollywood (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church); the entrance is actually on a side street south of the church. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors, and $20 for students. To purchase, call 323-462-8460 or visit: ActorsCo-op.org.