Stage Review: The Turn of the Screw

Just wanted to alert Los Angeles area horror fans that the Pacific Resident Theatre's production of THE TURN OF THE SCREW comes to an end this weekend. There are still performances tonight and tomorrow at 8:00pm and Sunday afternoon at 3:00pm.

The play is an adaptation of the novella by Henry James, which is one of the classic ghost stories in English literature. It tells of a governess who is given charge of two young children in an isolated mansion. At first everything seems rosy until we learn that the youngsters were privy to -- perhaps even participated in -- a torrid affair between the previous governess and a devilish servant, who are both now dead. The present governess begins seeing manifestations of the two dead lovers, who she thinks want to reconnect by taking possession of the children -- possibly with the children's willing aquiescence. Her only hope is that she can exorcise the ghosts by making the young boy admit that he sees them, breaking through the layer of denial that allows the ghosts to manifest.

It's a disturbing, almost demented story, and ever since it was published in 1896, critics have argued about whether the ghosts exist in reality or only in the mind of the governness. James's writing is very much enamored of language, and he obviously enjoys saying a lot while telling us relatively little about what actually happens. Written in the first person from the point of view of the governess, the book presents her interpretations of what is happening -- often at length -- while having her offer little in the way of substance to back it up.

A previous stage adaptation made its debut on Broadway back in 1950. Entitled THE INNOCENTS, this version was impressive in that it got the story out of the governess's head (here called Miss Jessel) and dramatized it in a concrete way, with lots of action and dialogue that had not been present in the original. This play then became the basis for a classic 1960 film starring Deborah Kerr - a version that emphasized the psychological interpreation of the haunting, suggesting that a sexually repressed Miss Jessel was projecting her own inner demons onto the children.

The Pacific Resident Theatre production is based on a more recent adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, from ten years ago. Hatcher's play is set on a bare stage with only a single chair, and only two actors appear: one plays the governess; the other plays all the other parts. No ghosts are ever seen, only described by the terrified governess, and the whole thing is wrapped in a framing device (as was James's tale). In effect, the theatrical space becomes almost a mental one; the artificiality suggests we are experiencing the subjects sensations of the governess, thus retaining the ambiguity of James's literary conceit.

The production has received a couple of rave reviews (including one in the Los Angeles Times), but I was slightly disappointed. The very nature of the James story requires a slow build-up, which can be a trifle dull without any obvious supernatural manifestations to goose things up.

Fortunately, the two cast members are excellent, and the slow but steady narrative cresendo does pay off with an exhilerating, thrilling, and emotionally shattering conclusion. With only a few meagre lighting effects (and no music -- even the "sound effects" are voiced by the actor), this production of THE TURN OF THE SCREW does manage to get under your skin and give you the creeps - in a way that more explicit horror (of the cinematic kind) never can.

Afterwards, there is a brief "talkback" session, when the audience can ask questions of the two actors and the play's director. On the night I attended, I asked Tracie Lockwood about playing the governess: by virtue of having to embody the character in front of an audience, was it necessary for her to reach a firm decision upon the ambiguity that James never resolved?

Ms. Lockwood replied that, in terms of her performance, she had to play the governess (who, per the James novella, is not named) as if the ghosts were real - because the governess herself believed them to be real. In other words, she did not want to stand outside the character and comment upon her by suggesting another interpretation - although she and the others involved in the play were well aware of that interpretation.

Lockwood went on to mention some reasons for not trusting the governess's judgment: she is supposed to be a young woman of religious background and little or no experience in the world, who finds herself over her head in a situation beyond her capacity to deal with, so she resorts to her religious training, whether or not it is truly appropriate. James himself came from a similar background, and was dubious of people whose narrow belief systems were not tempered by experience and knowledge of the world.

The play's director, Robert Bailey concurred with Lockwood, and added that for him the play had resonances with situations iwhere well-meaning people act upon thier beliefs in order to do good, without really understanding the situation they are dealing with -- and he cited the current U.S. misadventure in Iraq as an example.

So, if you are looking for a good evening's entertainment this weekend, check out the final performances of TURN OF THE SCREW. The theatre is located in Venice, so it will be easy for you to find an interesting place to eat or have coffee afterwards. (Unfortunately, I was heart-broken to find that the nearby Van Gogh's Ear Coffee House - once a must-visit place whenever you were in the area - is no more.)

You can call (310) 822-8392 for more information, or check out the theatre's website.

Location: Pacific Resident Theatre - 705 1/2 Venice Blvd in Venice, CA