Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 27
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
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GOVERNESS AND HER CHARGE: Is the governess going mad? Is little Miles collaborating with fiendish ghosts in a sadistic plot? Heather May as the governess and Andy Linz as Miles (also a variety of other characters) light up Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 11.

What’s Going On Here? Insane Governess or Wicked Spirits? PST Stages Henry James’ Ghost Story, “The Turn of the Screw”

Donald Gilpin

A young Victorian lady, “romantic at heart,” travels to lonely Bly Manor in Essex to serve as governess for two recently orphaned children in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), adapted for the stage (1996) by Jeffrey Hatcher and currently playing at Princeton Summer Theater. She soon begins to see ghosts of her predecessor Miss Jessel and the former master’s valet Peter Quint, both of whom died recently under mysterious circumstances. As she tells and performs her story of what James described as the “most infernal imaginable evil and danger,” the governess battles to protect her little charges from the fiendish ghosts. But are the ghosts really there or does the real terror in this story lurk in the governess’ sexually repressed, feverish imagination?

As Mrs. Grose, the elderly housekeeper of Bly, observes, “The madhouse is full of governesses.” This intense psychodrama will certainly, as Mr. Hatcher urges, “give the people something to argue about on the way home.” Embracing the character of the zealous governess with full focus and commitment, Heather May embodies the innocent young woman’s passionate, growing obsession and increasingly precarious sanity. In narrative and dialogue modes, from initial shyness through determination, fear and panic, to a fanatical fervor, Ms. Mays brings to life this character and the mysterious world of the play.

As her counterpart in this two-person tour de force, Andy Linz, never changing from his aristocratic Victorian formal attire, shifts skillfully among several different roles: self-possessed narrator, suave bachelor-uncle who hires the governess, the kindly Mrs. Grose, the ten-year-old Miles and others.

“The Turn of the Screw” will play for one more weekend, July 8-11, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-7062 for information.

This minimalist production, under the able direction of Dominique Salerno, employs only one well-appointed chair and a chandelier for its set, no props, no costume changes, and sound effects all provided by the actors. The two actors carry the full burden of the powerful 90-minute show, but not without significant support from technical director Allen Grimm’s intricate, shadowy, and multicolored lighting design. The realistic Victorian costumes, designed by Ms. May, Ariel Sibert, and Margaret Tominey, complement characters and action. The production design, which Mr. Grimm describes as “a dance,” contrasting green floor center stage and swirling lighting amidst surrounding blackness and fog into which the “man” recedes on his upstage exits, interacts richly with character and plot in creating the troubled psychological world of the play.

James’ classic novella has prompted many volumes of critical and speculative response in the 112 years since its publication. The multiple narrators with narrations within narrations, gender and class issues, the psychological complexity of the disturbed governess and the shocking, ambiguous ending have created rich food for the imaginations and publications of literary critics across the spectrum — practical, psychological, feminist, Marxist, reader-response, and deconstructionist.

Mr. Hatcher’s adaptation, despite its austere, relentlessly spare and earnest presentation, also provides an intriguing puzzle in the mystery of Bly Manor. The extraordinary ambiguity of James’ novella is diminished here. Since no ghosts of Quint and Jessel actually appear to the audience, the story emerges from the governess’ recollections and increasingly wild reactions, lending credence to the “mad governess” theory, but fortunately this PST production — with Ms. May and Mr. Linz’s commitment to character, and the first-rate direction and production values — prevents this 90-minute rollercoaster ride from descending to obsessive dreariness.

In the final lines of the play, the still unnamed governess continues to tell her story: “We were all children once. What we want is affection. Love. Protection. There’s nothing like a child in pain.” And “the man” asks the audience, “Has she seduced you?” The seduction motif, with both sexual and non-sexual connotations, is prevalent throughout the play, The Turn of the Screw is very much a story of authorial, theatrical, and narrative seductions, as the storytellers, the man and the governess, persuade the audience to believe their tales. It is also a story of the seduction of the governess by her worldly-wise employer, the mutual corrupting seductions by governess and her charges, echoing earlier seductions of each other and the children by Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Ms. May and Mr. Linz make the most of the layers of meaning and the suggestive double entendres here.

Henry James’ devotees might be disappointed with the limitations of Mr. Hatcher’s adaptation in its stark, at times one-dimensional, simplicity, but the virtues of this fine PST production happily succeeded in seducing an appreciative opening-night audience at the Hamilton Murray Theater.

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