A great ghost story answers few questions. It seeps in and slithers out, raising the hair on your neck and revealing almost nothing but impressions of what may or may not have taken place.
That’s why The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s 1898 novella, is such a classic of the genre, and why not only readers, but also composers and playwrights, return to it again and again. The tale combines pinpoint writerly erudition with emotional and factual obfuscation. What really happened in those few short days at Bly House, the English country manse by the lake? Was the boy possessed? Did the ghosts exist? If evil truly was in the air, what was its source? Was the young governess a heroine, or criminally insane?
James’s story leaves it all up in the air, where the shades of memory and overwrought imagination fly, and people have been interpreting it freely for more than a century, not only as a human puzzle but also as an artistic archetype. How can the tale be told in other ways, and still remain true to the original?
In his 1954 opera adaptation, Benjamin Britten retold it with terse and muscular music and a libretto by Myfanwy Piper that moves swiftly but fully, bringing everyone to the stage, spectral and not: Portland Opera presented a fine production of it in 2009 that was big on visual effects.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s 1996 stage adaptation, which has just begun a spry and stimulating revival at Portland Shakespeare Project, takes a minimalist approach, bringing the whole thing down to two performers and a little storytelling magic. Dana Millican stars as the governess, a young innocent who enters this gothic atmosphere with the highest of hopes and is sucked swiftly into an atmosphere of creeping horror. Chris Harder plays everyone else: the arch narrator; the mysterious master who hires the governess to care for his niece and nephew, whose parents have died; the nervous housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who knows much more than she lets on; the boy, Miles, who is 10 going on 30 and a confusing mix of sweetness and corruption. Well, not quite everyone else. Miles’s little sister, Flora, as silent as a grave, and the two haunts, the deceased former governess Miss Jessel and the equally uncorporeal, devastatingly evil Peter Quint, are simply … suggested; created from words and gestures and reactions. Oh, look: Flora’s in the boat, slipping away from shore toward Miss Jessel’s beckoning form. See: Quint, calculating, menacing, gazing in the window.
To pull off such a pared-down version of the story requires very good actors and a director who pays close attention to the script’s many tiny turns of the screw, and in Harder, Millican, and director JoAnn Johnson, Portland Shakes has all three. There is, of course, the purely actorly pleasure of watching Harder switch from character to character, which he does not showily (he never even changes costume, wearing formal Victorian men’s attire from start to finish) but subtly, with the slightest twisting of the apparatus. Millican’s governess is a volatile blend of innocence, shock and determination, and she plays the shifts in temperament like a movie palace organist, now gasping, now laughing, now embracing, now defying the universe in a resonant crescendo. Though music itself is minimal almost to the point of disappearance (Hal Logan is composer and sound designer), the show is built on musical rises and falls, a quiet rhythmic propulsion.
Portland Shakes’s Turn of the Screw is built solidly on the foundation of two strong actors, a script and a space, but the design is also subtle and extraordinarily effective. Carl Faber’s lighting works like emotional underscoring. Sarah Gahagan’s costumes strike just the proper Victorian gothic note. And Tim Stapleton’s set, taking full advantage of the height at Artists Rep’s Morrison Stage, combines a 19th century richness in its handsome falling curtains with a thoroughly contemporary crispness in the gray stairwell that commands center stage and allows for action on multiple levels. The set supports the play without dominating it, and its combination of lushness and severity mirrors the story itself.
What’s going on at Bly House, and particularly inside the governess’s fevered mind? It’s a jumble and a temptation, a junk drawer of half-formed ideas and unfocused passions. There is an external reality and an internal reality, and, as with most ghost stories, the two cross over and become mixed. Innocence and corruption play leading roles. Seduction and sex, perhaps transgressive sex, are all aboil. The unknown becomes the enemy; religion a passion and a shield. Say his name! the governess shouts to Miles as she cradles him against the psychic storm. Say his name and you’ll be free!
All of this, all muddled, all volatile. An explosion, and an aftermath, and no answers. Like life, it seems, it’s dead on.
Portland Shakespeare Project’s The Turn of The Screw continues through October 18 on the Morrison Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.