1 June 2006: James, Turn of the Screw

New Century Theater. Theatre 14, Smith College. Adapted by Jack Neary. Directed by Neary

The first of four plays in this summer’s NCT season. A most stage-worthy adaptation of James’s masterful ghost story. A highly positive review last week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette praised the production, the adaptation from the novella, and the casting, especially the two children, Flora and Miles, played by Becca Stevens and Seth Olsen, both of them fifth-graders, but with an impressive list of previous credits and large ambitions for the future.

Seth Olsen in particular has truly remarkable presence — a “natural,” with flawless timing and fine diction, and a handsome fellow as well. Jeannine Haas, as Mrs. Grose, caught the profile of a well-placed manager or household care­taker in a provincial English manor house, including the somewhat lower-class English accent, just right. (She is the person responsible for Pauline Productions and the recent Boston Marriage.) And in general the casting was quite fine, includ­ing the governess, Birgit Huppuch; Quint, Phil Kilbourne (his shaved head made him look all the more frightening as one of the two ghostly apparitions) and Laura Legon — Miss Jessel — wonderfully made up to look as if she had just risen from death by drowning).

Neary as director has a very good sense of how to make things clear and dramatically effective on stage, and in his double capacity as adapter of James’s fiction and director of his own adaptation he got everything, or almost every­thing, right. There were a few places where I sensed that he was making the best of what was a fine transition in fictional terms but one that made for a little awkwardness on stage. Those were minor and infrequent moments, and were fully outclassed by some extremely effective moments. The Gazette reviewer had warned us to be prepared to be scared. At a certain point in the first act, the gov­erness sees a strange, shadowy man in the distance, who disappears almost immediately. Later, in the drawing room, she draws the curtains back from a big bay window, and he is standing there, only a few feet from her. She screams and staggers back, and the gasps in the house were quite audible. In another situ­ation, upstage in the children’s classroom, the chalkboard suddenly becomes transparent and the nodding, sorrowful head of the drowned governess, Miss Jessel, is seen.

I would have had to reread James’s story to see if I could discover an overall “figure in the carpet” in this work, but it is clear James is exploiting the current belief in, or fear of, a spiritual world mostly beyond our ken, inhabited by the ghosts of the dead who persist in attempting to reestablish contact with the living. This becomes clear at the end when Miles, who has mysteriously died in the arms of the governess, comes back — appears — with Quint and Miss Jessel at attempts to touch, or contact, Flora, who is sitting rigidly in a chair, full of apprehension. As they all touch her, a loud noise is heard, followed immediately by a blackout that ends the play.

It makes for mighty effective theatre. What it means, beyond that, is left up to individual members of the audience to surmise or speculate upon. Unfortunately, there were not very many members of the audience to respond in whatever way they liked. I would guess there were fewer than 200, in a theatre that can seat upwards of four times that many. There was very good publicity, and the Gazette review should have brought in additional patrons. Perhaps the reputation of Henry James as an over-sophisticated writer had something to do with it. From the stage, just before the play began, Jack Neary, in his usual “watch chimes and cell phones” speech, hinted at the difficulty when he said that the best kind of publicity is word-of-mouth. “If you liked the play, please tell your friends,” he urged. “And if you didn’t like it, lie to them,” he added. The note of desperation was not lost on us, though we were the converted. If people would just try out a play like this, they might be pleasantly surprised. The play will run an extra week; maybe audiences will pick up. If not, we’ll have to see what an all-African-American cast in The Glass Menagerie can do for houses.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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