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Monday, 28 October 2013 19:56

'The Turn of the Screw' at COCA: great theatre, stunning economy

Written by Steve Callahan

The Details

  • Director: Shawna Flanigan
  • Dates: October 25-26, 2013

Like you, I think I read Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" in Freshman English.  This so-called "ghost story" is rather rough going for a Freshman, what with James' long, formal, rambling, ornately qualified, vaguely Germanic sentences.  But I went to COCA!  There Jeffrey Hatcher's graceful stage adaptation of the story cut through all that stylistic filigree to take us swiftly, cleanly and clearly to the heart of this fearful story.  And, with stunning economy, it was done with simply a chair and two very gifted actors.

A young woman arrives for an interview for a position as governess to two small children—wards of a rich, handsome, and very busy gentleman.  The children live at his country estate (which the gentleman never visits) and the governess is to be given total authority over the children.  The gentleman's prime directive is that she never bother him—never even write—but make all decisions herself.  The governess is rather smitten with the gentleman, and has vague imaginings of herself in the role of Jane Eyre, a governess who married her rich master.

Arriving at the estate, she meets Mrs. Grose, the simple, loving, trustworthy house-keeper.  The children are the angelic little Flora and her beautiful brother Miles, who is ten.  A mystery surrounds Miles' expulsion from his school because of some unspecified corrupting influence on the other boys.  But he's so perfect!  How could it be?

Then the past intrudes.  Peter Quint, Peter Quint, that devil!  He was a former servant who had seduced and ruined Miss Jessel, the former governess.  In the absence of the Master, these two had exerted far too much influence over the children.  Now Quint and Jessel are dead, but their ghosts appear to the new governess.  What do they seek?   Have they come for the children?

Jennifer Theby-Quinn is the governess and Josh Routh plays all the other roles.  In the opening scene Roush, as the gentleman, indulges in a little overacting—using a hushed, almost spooky voice, pounding every double entendre, and stretching the pregnancy of pauses well beyond the nine-month limit.  But as Mrs. Grose and as young Master Miles he is most graceful and convincing.  Miss Theby-Quinn shows a delicious growing intensity.

Under the deft direction of Shawna Flanigan they gradually tighten that screw that fastens us to these people.  They pull us more and more irresistibly into the complex psychological terror of this tale.  It is utterly gripping.  There are hints of sexual corruption, even delicate hints of incest.  Is Quint really the Devil?  Can the governess save the children from him?  Are the ghosts real at all, or are they just the embodiment of the repressions in this youngest daughter of a poor country pastor?

I found myself pondering the question of Evil—and of the person of the Devil.  Even if that ultimately evil spirit exists only as a function of our subconscious, isn't it nevertheless real?

"The Turn of the Screw" is truly fine theatre.  It's gripping—it's frightening—and it makes you think.  Alas, it played for only two performances at COCA.

Additional Info

  • Director: Shawna Flanigan
  • Dates: October 25-26, 2013

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