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Seductive Voice

Who Is Drawing You Into This Story Within a Story Within a Story?

JAMESIAN: megan anderson and bruce nelson confront the unknown (or unexplained) together.

By John Barry | Posted 1/30/2008

There are a couple of adaptations of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, but Jeffrey Hatcher's is about as close to the original as you can get without reading the book. It's a fascinating approach for a story that is being told by someone-we're not quite sure whom-about something that may or may not have happened. With two actors, and almost no props, this Everyman Theatre production never lets that level of uncertainty go. So as the one-act play progresses, it's hard to tell what exactly we're watching. Is it the reading of a story, a dramatic re-enactment, or the deluded vision of someone who isn't all there?

Everyman will soon be moving to a larger space, but for the moment, James Fouchard's set and the somewhat cramped theater are a perfect match. The empty stage is dominated by off-kilter Victorian archways, but as the play progresses, it gains dimensions, eventually evoking a cerebral network of tunnels and galleys. James' story, in a similar way, hovers between psychological nightmares and everyday reality; it's not easy to tell which side of the line he's on.

The Turn of the Screw, at least in its literary incarnation, is a story within a story within a story. An unidentified narrator retells a story told by a friend, which is based on an account written by a woman who is no longer alive. Although Hatcher hints at this uncertainty, he reduces it to the essential mystery at the heart of the play. A young governess (Megan Anderson) has been hired by an older widower (Bruce Nelson) to take care of his dead sister's two children. And the story gets weirder. She finds that she's replacing another governess, Miss Jessel, who died in strange circumstances, after a strange relationship with an abusive, attractive servant named Peter Quint. The young boy in her charge has just been kicked out of boarding school for doing something that is never quite revealed. Soon, the governess begins to suspect that although Quint and Jessel are dead, their souls live on. They are reliving their romance through the two children.

Almost in defiance of James' rapidly expanding panoply of characters, Hatcher takes the minimalist approach. While Anderson plays but a single row, Nelson takes on not only the unnamed widower but also his son Miles and the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. The effect is disorienting, because Nelson is forced to transition between a 40-year-old bachelor and a young child. The switches aren't believable, but that's probably the point.

As the governess, Anderson delivers a restrained performance that only hints at the possibility of her character's insanity. Her tone is precise and clipped, and she allows James to set the pace with his extended, somewhat hypnotizing effect. As the primary character, she takes on the double mantle as the play's narrator and a dramatic anchor.

With just two people on the stage alone, you might expect a little more dramatic tension. It doesn't happen. Only at the opening, when Nelson's mysterious bachelor attempts a halfhearted, brief, and weird seduction of his new governess, do the sparks fly. The two characters never meet onstage again, but that brief, close moment provides the sexual undercurrent that keeps The Turn of the Screw going. In the end, this production actually gets to the heart of James' own vaguely defined personae: They don't know exactly where they begin and end.

Having seen it twice-this play was produced at Fells Point Corner Theatre a few years ago-I can confirm that there's something frustrating and unformed about Hatcher's take on Screw: As the lines and characters blur, you begin to wonder whether it would be better as a radio play. But this shady minimal production also gets as close to the ambiguous terror at the heart of James' story as is possible. Like the characters themselves, their thoughts and words are incomplete, and only half-articulated, but are driven by desires that no one quite understands.

James made one attempt at playwriting; it was a disaster. That's probably because his voice was his defining quality, which turned his sentences, and his plots, into serpentine extensions of that personality. Everyman's production of The Turn of the Screw never loses touch with that hypnotic voice. You may not be sure exactly what you've been watching-a play or a storytelling session-but by the end, you may find yourself seduced. ★

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