It’s almost a trope, isn’t it: an innocent young governess is hired by a handsome employer to take care of difficult children on an isolated country estate. What could possibly go wrong?
A whole slew of nineteenth-century novelists were eager to tell us exactly what, among them Henry James, whose novella The Turn of the Screw was adapted for the stage in 1996 by Jeffrey Hatcher and is now playing at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater through October 29.
The governess—one of only two unnamed characters in the play—arrives at Bly, this particular isolated estate, eager to please her handsome employer and to take on any challenge offered by Miles and Flora, her new charges. But we know from the beginning that this isn’t to be: the spare staging, surrounded by darkness, lit only by a chandelier (and with a dollhouse eerily in one corner) tells us that. And if we didn’t get that hint, the characters warn us soon enough: “Your predecessor wasn’t careful,” says the housekeeper. “Welcome, to Bly, miss. Lock your doors.”
Kelsey Torstveit plays the governess, though this play bills her only as The Woman; all the other characters—at least, those we sort-of know to exist—are gathered under The Man, played by Joe Pietropaolo. Both actors are superb, with Pietropaolo exhibiting a tour de force in his multiple roles: the housekeeper, the employer, even little Miles, the child expelled from school for mysterious reasons.
Torstveit takes us on a dark journey as her character starts unraveling. “The madhouses are filled with governesses,” observes The Woman; but well before she comes to that realization the audience has been treated to a slew of events that would drive anybody crazy. The previous governess, Miss Jessel by name, has appeared coming out of the lake where she drowned, while Peter Quint, equally dead, is showing up in a number of different places. Flora creepily hasn’t spoken since Quint’s death, and one has the uneasy feeling that Miles, polite beyond reproach, might just be the kind of kid who spends his spare time torturing small animals or setting fires.
The questions around James’ novella hover here: do the children really exist? They’re already ghostly in this staging, since they’re physically not present. “You’ve come at the end of the story,” says The Man, to which The Woman replies dangerously, “I don’t think so.” And nor has she: as she becomes more and more emotionally wrought, she keeps the audience breathlessly with her, even as she describes in the present tense what she and other characters are doing—a device that could well misfire but is handled adeptly by Torstveit and Christopher Ostrom, the play’s director.
The Turn of the Screw is at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater through October 29, and is the perfect scary-Halloween story. Treat yourself to it!