Reviewed by Judy Richter
There's a lot of ambiguity in Henry James' novella "The Turn of the Screw," which playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has adapted for the stage. The San Jose Stage Company production directed by Rick Singleton captures much of that ambiguity. Presented in 90 minutes without intermission, "The Turn of the Screw" is set in the late 19th century with most of the action taking place at Bly, a dreary, remote mansion in the Essex area of England. It's done with two actors labeled The Man (Michael C. Storm) and The Woman (Chloë Bronzan). She plays a young governess hired to care for two orphaned children at Bly. He portrays the other three characters seen by the audience: the London businessman who hired the governess to look after his niece and nephew; Mrs. Grose, Bly's elderly housekeeper; and Miles, the 10-year-old nephew.
The governess is looking forward to teaching her two young charges, but she soon discovers that 5-year-old Flora doesn't speak and that Miles has been sent home after being expelled from school. She also learns that her predecessor died after a torrid affair with the valet, who committed suicide at Bly. She comes to believe that their ghosts are present and that they're trying to possess the children's souls.
The ambiguity arises when the audience must decide whether there truly are ghosts or whether they're the product of an overactive imagination fueled by sexual repression. The first hints of the ambiguity arise when the governess apparently misunderstands some of her employer's words, seeming to hear "aversion" as "a virgin," for example. Then there's the relationship between her and Miles, who, along with Flora, saw much of the misconduct between the valet and previous governess. This experience has apparently made Miles more sexually aware than is appropriate for a boy his age. However, when he seems to try to act on it with the new governess, one isn't sure who's initiating the conduct.
Bronzan is well cast as the governess, reflecting her growing fears as well as her concern for the children's welfare. Storm creates his three quite different characters just by changing his tone of voice and physical demeanor. The appropriately dreary set and lighting are by Michael Palumbo. Michele Wynne has created the black period costumes, and the sound design, sometimes overdone, is by Nion Dickson.
"The Turn of the Screw" is a suspenseful, ghostly yarn, a good choice for the days leading up to Halloween.