The Turn of the Screw

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy
@ Progress Energy Center
Through Aug. 9

The question “Have I seduced you?” seems almost a non sequitur when David McClutchey’s chilly, and certainly Victorian, Master poses it to Dana Marks’ circumspect Governess at the opening of The Turn of the Screw. In that instance, he’s actually asking her if she’ll take the job of raising an unwanted niece and nephew on a remote country estate.

But when the audience is asked the same question, at the close of this intriguing psychological drama, we’re being polled on more than the success of the production. For playwright Jeffrey Hatcher notes that seduction isn’t just woven among the various characters in his adaptation of the Henry James novella. Ultimately, it’s a fundamental in the relationship between the viewers and the players in a scary play.

Hatcher’s 1996 stage adaptation focuses intently on the opulence and opacity of language: While unleashing James’ florid prose at strategic moments, it’s admirably spare. The richness of a landscape that enthralls Marks’ Governessand uson her first approach to the estate is fully counterbalanced by the unyielding words that James’ characters repeatedly seize upon, or are seized by, in their scramble to maintain some purchase on dark deeds, without ever touching on them directly. The words ultimately mask much more than they disclose: Corruption. Virtue. Contamination. Love. Innocence. And always, seduction.

Hatcher’s aesthetic is embodied in the minimal set design and cast. Two actors perform all roles: Marks takes on the Governess with intelligent energy, while McClutchey transitions crisply among supporting roles as the Master, haughty cook, Mrs. Grose, and an enigmatic 10-year-old, Miles.

But minimalism nets diminishing returns when Hatcher’s language grows too precious: An actor merely distracts us when directed to say the words “creak” and “footfall” in the place of sound effects.

Although the restraint of director Adam Twiss is admirable, there remain places where this Turn is too fastidious to be fully effective. Curtis Lee Jones’ lights are too bright, especially in the midnight darkness of an upper corridor. Audio designer Phil Valera’s ambient backgrounds add unease, but the sounds of a tempest near show’s end remain too distant, too tame.

Potentially more disturbing are the neutral readings given repeated iterations of lines like “There’s nothing like a child in pain.” Though Marks displays a gamut of emotions as the Governesspassion, puzzlement, defiance and angerwe rarely see outright fear.

Hatcher implies that the real horror in The Turn of the Screw might lie in the hysteria of a witch hunt based in a Victorian-era understanding of human sexualitya mania that ultimately results in the death of a young, gay child when his guardian attempts to, in effect, “deprogram” him.

After that harrowing incident, we look closely for how the preceding derangement has changed Marks’ character. When there’s little evidence of any change, we experience flatness instead of enigma. A far-too-brisk denouement places too much trust in wordsrather than interpretive choices and actingto convey any final chills. The result is a show that may seduce us, but never fully consummates the relationship.