Dana Millican

A tightly sprung turn of the screw

Portland Shakespeare Project's spry and stimulating stage version of Henry James's classic ghost story teases the tension in the tale

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?

Harder and Millican: chills, thrills ...

Harder and Millican: chills, thrills …

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.

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Ring-ring. Sarah Ruhl calling.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone," sparked by Dana Millican's deft blend of comedy and fantasy, pushes the right buttons to start Profile's season of Ruhl plays

A phone rings, and rings, and rings, and exasperatingly, its owner doesn’t answer it. He just sits at his café table, staring straight ahead, as if lost in thought, dreaming of the last bowl of lobster bisque he arrived too late to get.

Or – this might explain things – he’s dead. Dapper, self-involved, acerbic Gordon has been struck down amid pangs of hunger, and even sharper irritation at the young woman at the next table, who is just spooning in the last bite of the bisque he had specifically come to this oddly unstaffed café to eat.

Millican (left) and Green, swapping stories. Photo: David Kinder

Millican (left) and Green, swapping stories. Photo: David Kinder

That young woman, Jean (Dana Millican), equally irritated at the cell phone’s bleat, eventually answers it herself, and then keeps answering it, over and over, slipping into the shadows and abandoned realities of the dead man’s life as if it were a celestial obligation, or a gift.

Welcome to Dead Man’s Cell Phone, the sparklingly oddball first production in Profile Theatre’s season of plays by Sarah Ruhl. This slightly absurdist, slightly comic-book, highly whimsical, and emotionally serious play takes a headlong leap down the rabbit hole, and Millican makes an ideal, engagingly sympathetic contemporary Alice, balancing the role’s cartoon and realist aspects to create a captivating wonderland.

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Mom and daughter, unbonding

Marsha Norman's harrowing "'Night, Mother" at CoHo is a long night's journey into … where?

Thelma has a sweet life. At least, if we’re to judge by her preferred diet. In the early moments of ‘Night, Mother, the Pulitzer-winning 1983 play by Marsha Norman, Thelma’s daughter Jessie diligently fills storage canisters and decorative dishes with various candies, and leaves more where that came from in big brown paper bags. Thelma prefers sodas to milk, too, despite her doctor’s admonitions. Simple pleasures, it seems, are enough to make her unexamined life worth living.

On this particular night, a Saturday, one of those pleasures is to be a manicure, courtesy of Jessie. Such are the quiet routines of these two, living together again as adults, since the end of Jessie’s ill-fated marriage.

Maddux and Millican: one helluva night. Photo: Gary Norman

Maddux and Millican: one helluva night. Photo: Gary Norman

But routine is disrupted by the most bitter shock a parent can taste after Jessie unceremoniously informs her mom that she intends to kill herself before the evening is over. The central concern of ‘Night, Mother isn’t so much whether Jessie will or won’t follow through, but rather what Thelma will do – what must she do, what can she do –  in the face of such awful knowledge.

Of these two characters, it is Jessie who is lost in despair, whose internal circumstance is demonstrably pitiable; yet it is Thelma who truly elicits our care and sympathies. That’s partly because Norman’s script – perhaps its very premise – thrusts Thelma into the more emotionally complex and volatile dilemma. (“To be, or not to be,” might in fact be the question, but it’s not nearly as tricky as “What if?”) But in the production that opened Friday at CoHo Theater, much of that is due to a marvelously multi-layered performance from Jacklyn Maddux, who brings a terrible vividness to Thelma’s perplexity and desperation.

In his professional debut as a director, the powerful Portland actor Gavin Hoffman guides Maddux and Dana Millican through the emotional curves of this tightly contained one-act drama with a clear sense of pace.

By the time Jessie reveals her plan, just a few minutes into the play, Thelma already is implicated in the act. Once she’s finished stocking the candy, Jessie asks where her father’s gun might be, and Thelma guides her to its shoebox hidey hole in the attic. Though that exchange, and Jessie’s calm, purposeful cleaning of the pistol, carry a ho-hum casualness, they lead quite naturally to the question of why Jessie’s suddenly interested in the weapon. At first she tells Thelma she wants the gun “for protection” – an unconvincing claim, given their homebody natures and the placid, lower-middle-class lives evoked by Tal Sander’s scrupulously naturalistic set design – but she seems to be neither joking nor lying: She is indeed seeking protection, from the crushing force of lifelong dissatisfaction, from sadness as stasis.

Thelma responds with, by turns, disbelief, horror, anger, grief; and she tries whatever pops into her suddenly and unaccustomedly racing mind to dissuade her daughter. She reasons, she sweet-talks, she threatens, she stalls. Jessie counters these efforts with the gentle resolve of a tai chi master (albeit a slightly peevish one), and the evening settles into a slower rhythm as the two women delve into a long overdue accounting of their entwined lives and sorrows.

With their matching pale-red curls, Millican and Maddux look very much like family, and their interaction here achieves a kind of lived-in mix of tenderness and temper. If Millican’s performance is the less arresting of the two, that may be in part because Jessie’s character arc has, for the most part, already been completed by the time we meet these two. The actor’s challenge is in balancing Jessie’s despair with her pragmatism and finding the right energy to keep her moving forward when her motivation is simply to stop, and Millican rides that line well. Yet Jessie remains a somewhat unsatisfying character, a mere obstructionist in the play’s emotional dynamic.

She not only resists Thelma’s varied efforts to change her mind, she won’t let Thelma call for help, and wants her to later on deny any forewarning of the suicide. These last hours are a “private matter” between the two of them, she insists. She didn’t want to simply leave a note or to leave things unexplained, but giving mom a chance to say goodbye also means giving mom a sickening taste of powerlessness.

And what ‘Night, Mother leaves us to ponder is whether those last hours were Jessie’s parting gift or parting curse.

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 ‘Night, Mother continues through Nov. 8 at CoHo Theater. Ticket and schedule information are here.