A Victorian ghost story staged in a Victorian mansion – what could be spookier?
The young theater company Simple Machine is presenting “The Turn of the Screw” in two of them — the Gibson House Museum in the Back Bay and the Taylor House Bed and Breakfast in Jamaica Plain – in a haunting production that takes terrific advantage of Jeffrey Hatcher’s spare adaptation of Henry James’s tale.
At the Gibson House Museum, where Saturday’s performance was staged, the play opens downstairs in a kitchen complete with cast-iron stove and a row of bells above the door to summon the servants (a la “Downton Abbey”). It’s there that we meet the naïve young Governess (Anna Waldron) at her interview with an unnamed guardian (Stephen Libby) of two young orphans. In a scene filled with sexual innuendo, our heroine agrees to care for the wards, Miles and Flora, but promises never to bother him with any details of their lives.
The Governess then travels to Bly, the children’s isolated home, which she describes as “a bit like Hamlet’s Elsinore.” The audience travels, too, moving upstairs to the entryway, and the rest of the action is staged on the grand staircase and in the hall. The story unfolds as a series of diary entries made by the Governess, so the details emerge from her innocence, fear of unspeakable corruption, and vivid imagination. The job of caring for the young orphans is complicated by the mysterious departure of the Governess’s predecessor and the way her spirit, and that of her lover, continue to haunt the household.
Waldron’s Governess is eager and enthusiastic, extolling the praises of her charges even when Miles is sent home from school for “corruption and contamination.” Waldron infuses the Governess with a lovely sense of false bravado. But as the sinister truth mixes with her own misguided effort to be heroic, Waldron needs to find a balance between righteousness and vulnerability, which would build to a more menacing crescendo.
Libby provides a solid but unnerving counterpoint to Waldron’s increasingly nervous Governess. He plays the guardian, housekeeper Mrs. Grose, and Miles, shifting among their distinct personalities with just a change in vocal inflection or posture. He seductively looms over the Governess in the first scene, gives Mrs. Grose a sense of brisk competence, and hangs his head with an expression of dark mischief as the willful 10-year-old Miles.
Director M. Bevin O’Gara uses every inch of the tight playing space, moving Waldron up and down the grand staircase, suggesting eerie possibilities just out of sight. Lighting designer Ian King’s minimal effects emphasize the sense of danger lurking in the shadows. Since Libby plays all the other characters as well as providing sound effects, O’Gara orchestrates his entrances and exits from several different locations, giving the production a sense of breadth beyond the stairs and hall.
Simple Machine’s inventive, site-specific approach in the elegant Gibson Musuem offers an imaginative alternative to traditional theater. And it will encourage you to steer clear of shadows.