Simple Machine Theatre’s elegant production of Henry James’ eerie THE TURN OF THE SCREW (in a lovely adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher) has been extended to November 27th. As ghost stories go, James’ psychological thriller is considered to be the pinnacle. His vaunted literary career lasted for fifty years. His brother made inroads into the field of psychology and his sister dabbled in the occult. THE TURN OF THE SCREW has been made into at least three movies, several stage adaptations and an opera.
What Simple Machine has done to ratchet up the suspense of the story (a governess in a remote estate who senses the presence of supernatural forces) is to set the play in two period houses in Boston which overflow with historical significance. The first is Gibson House Museum, built in 1859, one of the earliest residences in Back Bay equipped with gas light. The stairs creek and the air reeks of musty history. The dining table is set with the best china, awaiting the master and mistress of the house. Formal portraits and finely chiseled, bronze statuary attest to the family’s wealth.
When we arrive, we’re ushered down a flight of stairs to a kitchen with the most enormous, charcoal black iron stove I’ve ever seen. As we sit waiting for the play to begin, a carved wooden panel on the back wall behind my chair moves slightly, giving me chills even before it starts. Then we meet the gentleman who engages the eager governess, without telling her what happened to her predecessor, to look after his orphaned niece and nephew. He instructs her not to involve him in matters of their care, nor to “trouble” him, actually, with anything. Then we proceed, following the governess, back up the steep, uneven old stairs to the front room, where we sit with a view of the dining area, the central curved staircase and a glimpse of the upstairs landing.
Anna Waldron is the impressionable governess who dreams that her employer, like Mr. Rochester for Jane Eyre, may come to value and even love her. Waldron embodies the contradiction of strength (from a belief in goodness and God, learned from her pastor/father) and weakness (from inexperience and fear of the very devil, probably from her father as well). We are left to decide if the apparitions she sees are real or figments of her imagination. Some adaptations show us the ghosts but Hatcher’s does not, which is what makes this version even more powerful. Waldron manages seamlessly to covey both the governess’ terror and her dedication to the children.
All the other roles are played by Stephen Libby, from housekeeper to employer to the ten year old boy who certainly seems possessed. Libby masters the fine edge between humor and gothic gravity with aplomb. We laugh at the plodding housekeeper and we recoil at the ten year old’s willful defiance of authority.
Director M. Bevin O’Gara drives the story, as the screws tighten, like a speeding train headed off the track. We’re immensely frightened for the governess and for her small charges. Ian W. King’s dimly filtered lighting (or is it the museum dust that creates the haze) seems to cast a veil over the staircase scenes---or maybe it’s our own imagination run wild. We almost see the ghosts in the shadows on the walls at Gibson House.
The second locale, which I have not seen, is the 1850’s Taylor House, built at the height of Jamaica Plain’s golden age. Ticket information is available at w.w.w.simplemachinetheatre.com
Don’t miss the chance to see James’ masterpiece in a setting he himself might have visited when in town to see his friends, John Singer Sargent and Isabella Stewart Gardner. I think he’d be pleased.