The Turn of the Screw Review - Do You Believe in Ghosts?

The classic novella by Henry James is ready to scare audiences again, this version a two-person mini-play. And it proves just as scary as the earlier presentations, including an opera, a ballet, a film, a TV special, and stage productions from London to Hollywood. This current version is by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, who manages to catch all the subtexts in the tale and make the unspeakable thrive.

Isaac Wade and Natalie Hope MacMillan - Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

You’ll all probably recall that Henry James was the brother of William James, who was the first American psychologist to gain an international reputation in the Victorian period. Pundits said that William always wanted to turn psychology into fiction, while Henry wanted to turn fiction into psychology. Which is just what he does in THE TURN OF THE SCREW. The work started life as a potboiler. Poor Henry wasn’t too successful with his writing and was ready to throw in the towel when, in desperation, he wrote a series for a magazine, a vulgar pastime at best in his era. After all, artists shouldn’t have to concern themselves with money. Ironically, it turned out to be his most famous writing and soon became a classic.

This is Victorian England, a time when there were lots of secrets that never were acknowledged, a veritable Freudian haystack. Subjects like sex were among the big no-no’s of the time. The story begins with James’ governess having a peculiar interview with the Lord of the Manor, who offers her the position of caring for his two young wards – with the absolute requirement that she never bother him for any reason and make all decisions on her own. So off she goes to her first governess job caring for little Flora and her precocious ten-year-old brother Miles.

Natalie Hope MacMillan and Isaac Wade - Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

The huge estate the children call home is far from everywhere, quiet and perhaps even a bit lonely. The governess’ only adult contact is an elderly housekeeper who cares for their day-to-day needs. But the governess soon finds out that there is something a bit strange about the children: little Flora does not speak a word, and Miles has just been expelled from his boarding school for unspecified reasons – but we know they are bad. Despite these issues, the governess is nothing if not tenacious. She is convinced that love will conquer all. She will help these children if it kills her – or them. Add to these strange children two fleeting presences who resemble the children’s former governess and her lover, both dead. Maybe the children have seen things that children are not supposed to see. And poor little Flora has not spoken a word since she discovered her last governess’ body.

Isaac Wade and Natalie Hope MacMillan - Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

The current version stars Natalie Hope MacMillan as the ill-fated governess and Isaac Wade as just about everybody else. Both do a superb job of keeping the suspense building. The talented Mr. Wade shows a real affinity for playing multiple roles with a fine eye for detail, whether it be posture or speech patterns. Henry James proved himself a consummate story-teller, and the two stars of this play display consummate acting skills to bring a frightening tale to life (or death).

The stage is empty, save a stool; and subdued, flickering lighting makes the dark corners of the stage feel like the dark corners of the mind. The net effect is almost like the audience is sitting around a fire sharing goose bumps. The chilling events are molded by Ellen Lenbergs’ stark scenic design, Jenny Foldenauer’s costumes, and Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting. Director Robertson Dean manages to turn his cast of two into multiple characters – each with a very strong individualized personality.   THE TURN OF THE SCREW is a perfect show for Halloween – but, if you like ghost stories, also a perfect tale for anytime. James’ story has seen lots of productions – but this may be the scariest yet. Simplicity may win the day.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW runs through November 20, 2016, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. There are also Saturday matinees scheduled at 2:30 p.m. on 10/22/16 and 11/19/16. Tickets are $30 ($25 seniors, $20 students). The Crossley Theatre is located at 1760 N. Gower Street (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood) in Hollywood, CA. For information or reservations, call 323-462-8460 or go online.

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