This staged reading of Henry James’ story proves that a small, scaled-down production can produce chills and suspense; all it takes is a good script, excellent direction, and two talented actors. Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Donald Hicken, this show is performed in Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s intimate black-box theater to great dramatic effect, with ghosts, an unreliable narrator, and secrets brought to light.
Set in England in 1872, over the course of a week, it tells the story of an unnamed governess (Laura Rocklyn), hired to look after two young children at a remote country estate called Bly House. Tony Tsendeas plays the other speaking roles: the unnamed Master who hires the governess at the start; Mrs. Grose, the elderly housekeeper who slowly reveals to the governess what happened to her predecessor; and Miles, a 10-year old boy who is “different from other boys,” and who “knows things” that he shouldn’t.
Mrs. Grose, the elderly housekeeper who slowly reveals to the governess what happened to her predecessor; and Miles, a 10-year old boy who “knows things” that he shouldn’t. The governess soon discovers what appears to be ghosts haunting the estate, spirits from the recent past that threaten to consume her and the children. She is determined to protect her charges and discover the reasons behind these seemingly supernatural events. But all may not be as she perceives it, and she may end up doing more harm than good.
Tsendeas does a remarkable job differentiating between the three characters. For Mrs. Grose, he dons a black lace shawl and sounds very much like an old woman. In one of her early conversations with the governess, she is careful to only say that the previous one, Miss Jessel “went away.”
Miles comes across originally as a sweet-natured, rather precocious boy. He sits on the floor while talking with the governess, laying on the floor and sitting on his knees as he exchanges riddles with her. But there are unsettling elements about him, which we slowly learn about. When both he and the governess are eager for the Master to visit Bly, Miles explains that he can convince his younger sister Flora to do something that will get the Master to return; he tells the governess “I’ll take care of everything.” And you can only imagine how he takes care of business.
Rocklyn is excellent as the governess. She plays a young woman who loves the children she is in charge of, and who wants them to love her equally. She is also more than a little in love with the Master; she’s read Jayne Eyre and knows all the stories of governesses who married their employers, and hopes that this might happen to her too. Speaking and playing with Flora, one can almost see the little girl as she warms up to the governess, finally breaking into a smile. Rocklyn runs through the whole range of emotions throughout the play, from love and enthusiasm to anger at the children.
Both actors deliver exceptional performances.
The lighting helps set the atmosphere as well. Designed by Jacob Mueller, it darkens as the governess describes the ghosts she encounters, or the other mysterious and frightening experiences she witnesses, then suddenly brightens when reality intrudes. It makes for a terrific contrast between the two worlds. Mysterious music from off-stage also raises the suspense as well. Simple sound effects from Tsendeas, such as the creaking of stairs or the chiming of a clock adds to the creepiness.
Nancy Krebs does a commendable job as Voice and Dialect Coach. Rocklyn and Tsendeas’ accents sound authentically English, and reflect the characters’ different class backgrounds. Mrs. Grose, for instance, is more working-class, whereas Miles and the Master sound like upper-class men.
Donald Hicken has directed this production brilliantly. When the play begins, a spotlight shows Tsendeas sitting as he sets the stage for what is to come, while Rocklyn stands silently in near darkness. During quiet moments, they sit on two simple chairs with lecterns holding their scripts. During more dramatic scenes, they use the entire stage, walking about, kneeling, and spreading out on the floor.
Hicken also designed the black dress Rocklyn wears, reminiscent of the 19th Century; Tsendeas wears modern-day clothing. The actors work well together and are extremely comfortable with the material.
All the elements come together in The Turn of the Screw to create a spooky tale that keeps the audience gripping their seats until the very end. This production only runs a week, so see it before it’s gone. You may want to leave the light on when going to sleep afterwards!
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
The Turn of the Screw plays from August 5, 2016, through August 14, 2016 at Annapolis Shakespeare Company – 111 Chinquapin Round Road, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 415-3513, or purchase them online.