Our intrepid scribe takes on Syracuse Stage’s take on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw
By James MacKillop
The action for The Turn of the Screw, Syracuse Stage’s season opener, begins with a prospective governess facing a tough job interview. A well-to-do gentleman is looking for someone to take care of an orphaned nephew and niece in a country home. He wants to know about the state of her virginity, causing no blushes, as he moves quickly to assure her his usage is figurative, meaning, is she afraid of a challenge. When he asks if she is afraid of loneliness, she answers, portentously, “I do not fear what I know.” Most unfriendly of all, he warns, “You must never trouble me; you must meet all questions and adversity yourself.” Like a traveler passing the point of no return, she decides to take the job anyway.
Readers in 1898, when Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw was published, recognized the interview as an established narrative convention. From at least the time of Jane Eyre (1847), a young woman thrust into a household but not a part of it was bound to discover family secrets, and those would be kinky, sometimes unspeakably so. This time out neither she nor we are going to be disappointed.
Speaking of expectations, most people arriving at Syracuse Stage’s smaller Storch Theatre, newly reconfigured with additional seats at the sides of the stage, will already know quite a bit about this often-studied text. The well-born James (1843-1916) usually portrays some of the best-mannered characters to be found in American fiction. So we’re already startled to hear the word “virgin” used, if only metaphorically. We do not expect to see anything untoward.
On the other hand, no less than shockmeister Stephen King has proclaimed The Turn of the Screw to be the quintessential ghost story in the English language. And as adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, the most often-produced contemporary playwright on the Syracuse New Times stage beat, the story gains a keen wordsmith with incisive wit.
For several decades in the last century, professors loved to assign The Turn of the Screw for reasons that have very little to do with Hatcher’s stripped-down, twoplayer stage adaptation. That was when academic criticism doted on the explication of the “unreliable narrator.” In James’ text, an unnamed narrator listens to a male friend reading from a manuscript written 26 years earlier by a former governess, now dead, whom the friend claims to have known. In other words, with all the layers of separation, the governess’ testimony would look like “hearsay” in a court of law, and so invites doubt. As ghosts are involved, for which no scientific proof exists, why should we believe any of it? Playwright Hatcher discards all that apparatus, but our doubts linger that the governess actually knows what has happened in the household.
For the most part, Michael Barakiva’s direction favors anything but lightness. Hatcher’s adaptation calls for two players, the unnamed governess played by Kristen Sieh, who does most of the verbal heavy lifting for 90 minutes, and Curzon Dobell, who begins the narration and covers all the other parts. With a mere shift of his shoulder and altering of his gait, Dobell can give us the middle-aged housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and the two children, Flora, who does not speak, and the more forthcoming Miles. There is no change of costume, no falsetto. When a piano is heard, Dobell mimes the keyboard and bum-bum-de-bums out the melody of Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. As a test of direction and actor’s control, the effect is indeed unsettling, and anything but comic.
Ominous reports start small: Miles has been dismissed from school for being “corrupt,” whatever that means. And they escalate: The previous governess, a pretty gentlewoman named Miss Jessel, had died a short time ago. While alive, she had been seduced by a former valet, Peter Quint, and in their lust they “did things” in front of the children. Nothing is spelled out, but it does not require much imagination to see the sinning servants not just as exhibitionists but as something courts would define as child molesters.
Such outrages do not last. Miss Jessel drowns herself in the estate’s pond, and Quint falls from a tower. Young Flora found the body and has not spoken since, but Mrs. Grose fibs to the magistrate, saying it was she who made the discovery. But if she won’t speak the truth to the law, why should she in addressing the governess?
About this time Hatcher’s decision to have one male play all parts begins to pay dividends. Thinking rather fondly of the uncle, her employer, the governess daydreams about him, imagining she has seen him in one of the mansion’s gothic towers. When that figure turns out to be someone else, a man with an icy stare, she’s a bit wounded. But not as much as when, later, she describes the staring figure, and Mrs. Grose identifies him as the presumed dead Quint.
The next day, after walking through the garden replete with deadly nightshade, the governess and the children proceed to the pond, next to which she and Miles amuse themselves with riddles. Looking up, the governess sees Flora wading into the water toward a pale female figure, dressed in black, who fits Mrs. Grose’s description of the late Miss Jessel. More appearances follow, along with the implications that the dead servants may somehow possess the children.
Mrs. Grose now asserts that the governess is insane and dangerous, while the governess threatens to expose the older woman as a prevaricator. The governess eventually forces Miles to confront the figure of Quint by having the boy repeat the man’s name three times, which will dispossess the boy. His incantation also releases the governess to express feelings for Miles she dared not reveal before. The same minimal ethics of the reviewer’s trade forbids giving away much more. Suffice to say, we each bring our life experiences to the stage, and two plausible reactions may be sustained.
For some, ambiguity is a torment. For others, like post-modernists, it is a confection. Hatcher’s The Turn of the Screw resembles Stephen Mallatrat’s Victorian chiller The Woman in Black, which has been filling houses in London since 1989 but has never done well in this side of the Atlantic. As with the James-Hatcher version, we see the self-evident artifice of presentation:
costumes, authentic sound effects and perhaps a thousand lighting cues,
and have to imagine the rest. Kristen Sieh and Curzon Dobell, both with
sterling professional credits, command our attention and engage our
emotions, but they don’t take us all the way to chilling.
This production runs through Oct. 16. See Times Table for more information.