DeAnna Wright in Dog Days Theatre's The Turn of the Screw.

Image: Cliff Roles

A darkened staircase, shadows on the floor, the wind soughing outside—these are all the physical elements needed to create a ghostly atmosphere in Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Turn of the Screw, a stage adaptation of the Henry James classic now in a Dog Days Theatre production at the Cook Theatre.

They set the scene, preparing us for what’s to come in this chiller. But it’s the psychological elements that keep us riveted to the tale. As the story’s narrator (Brian Owen) says at the outset, having a young child tormented by apparitions is one turn of the screw. Having two of them so haunted...that’s another.

Owen’s narrator is relating a story he heard from someone else, a drama that took place some time ago in the remote country house of a wealthy gentleman (also played by Owen, who essays multiple roles here, including the female housekeeper, Mrs. Grose). There, a young and inexperienced governess (DeAnna Wright) arrives, “seduced” by the gentleman (that word pops up again and again during the play, in various contexts) into agreeing to care for his orphaned niece and nephew, with the condition that she never bother him with any sort of communication about them.

The parson’s daughter, who’s had a hard and unloved childhood herself, is determined to perform her tasks well and to fall in love with her charges, the unseen Flora (who does not speak, in this version of the story), and Miles (a 10-year-old boy, again played by Owen), who’s been discharged from school and sent home because of some apparently depraved behavior. Did he learn that behavior at the hands of the master’s dead valet, Peter Quint, who ruined the life of the governess’ predecessor, Miss Jessel? What horrors have the children seen? And do they see the ghosts of the dead—or is that all in the mind of the overwrought governess?

Brian Owen and Wright

Image: Cliff Roles

James wrote The Turn of the Screw in serial form, back in 1898, and it’s been a hit ever since, both for readers and for audiences of theater, film, opera and even ballet. It’s a story that continues to intrigue, and in Hatcher’s spare adaptation, with just the two actors and minimal staging (under the direction of Chris Clavelli), it’s still effective—a tautly delivered (under 90 minutes) package filled with echoes of isolation, repression, lost innocence and fragility.

Owen, an FSU/Asolo Conservatory grad, moves smoothly and convincingly from role to role, whether it’s the confident master, the concerned housekeeper or the troubled Miles, who definitely seems to know things no 10-year-old should. Wright, a current Conservatory student, is clearly committed to her character, who’s clad in severe governess black and passionately determined to get to the bottom of what’s been happening at Bly. Her progress (if you can call it that) in that search unfolds with a sense of foreboding, but Wright sometimes struggles with the torrent of description she’s obliged to provide, of the otherwise unseen ghosts and their actions. The words tend to tumble over one another, at least on opening night.

But there’s no doubt The Turn of the Screw achieves what James originally set out to do: entertain us while scaring us and making us question what is “real” and what is not.

The Turn of the Screw continues through Aug. 26 at the Cook. For tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.   

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