There is much that is monstrous. But nothing is more monstrous than Man.

— Bertold Brecht

When we’re denied our monsters, we become them. The famous Canadian and U.S. military sense-deprivation experiments of the 1950s and ’60s, determined that the mind denied all audio, visual and tactile stimulation created vivid and frightening hallucinations. More than one source has pondered the possible connections between this phenomenon and the human capacity to dream.

It’s tempting to assert that a similar principle is at work in the realm where spirituality, ethics and polity overlap. It’s the place in our public discourse where the notion of “evil” comes into play.

This fundamentally disturbing prospect ultimately gives The Turn of the Screw a lot more substance than such a Victorian ghost story might first suggest. And even though, in this production, director Derek Goldman occasionally indulges his audience with on-stage monsters–indeed, perhaps more so than is wise–his original adaptation of James’ novel primarily focuses on an increasingly desperate search for what might be called “the coordinates of evil.”

This exploration is no idle pastime. Particularly not these days. Arguably, the same search has become the primary occupation–or preoccupation–of our commander in chief, and therefore our united Armed Forces and the newly created Bureau of Homeland Security.

No wonder the plight of the Governess in the book and in this production is so palpably familiar. In the remote English countryside estate where the young woman tutors Miles and Flora, as long as the capacity for evil can be located in one or two individuals, it’s rendered finite. If evil can be fixed in space, presumably it can be tracked, isolated and neutralized.

Sound familiar? After all, it hasn’t been that long since our own leader isolated evil geographically, on a convenient axis. But the ease of that first triumph, accomplished with the simplest of rhetorical devices, quickly soured when it–evil–somehow escaped his impressive verbal barrier. And when one of its designated carriers named bin Laden could not, despite all efforts, be effectively quarantined, evil spread like wildfire. There’s been hell to pay ever since.

Given that evil doesn’t stay still, the alleged fact that it’s also usually hard to see or totally invisible further fuels the crisis, in James’ world and ours. These putative qualities give rise, in turn, to the element of doubt: Do the spectres of deceased valet Peter Quint and former governess Miss Jessel actually exist? Where are they? Are they truly evil? And have the children somehow “contracted” that evil from them?

On at least one level, such a brace of questions doesn’t substantively differ from a number we’ve asked in recent months: Is Osama still alive and if so, where? Exactly how far has the evil of terrorism spread, and in how many sleeper cells does it lurk? Who’s religious beliefs and practices have been corrupted by it?

What’s worse, the difficulties of judgment–again, in both worlds–are only exacerbated when the essential, identifying contents of that evil are never clearly defined.

In James’ novel, Victorian sensibilities obliquely refer to the “corruption” of the children, the “liberties” of Quint, who’s termed “no gentleman,” and the precipitous “fall” of Miss Jessel. The corresponding euphemisms of our time, meanwhile, include “hatred,” “religious fanaticism,” and “anti-American sentiments.”

In both cases, the true contents of such monstrosities are kept in shadow–which, as it happens, is about the only place where monsters can be sure to grow. When horror and paranoia remain undefined, formless and unlocatable, they grow beyond all bounds, until they fill the imagination.

This premise is unfortunately as true in James’ novel as it is in America in 2003. And if the monsters in either place can’t be ultimately found, they can be invented.

Such implications make The Turn of the Screw a work far too fitting for our time.

Looking for any telltale sign of corruption, an increasingly agitated Governess scrutinizes, in minute detail, her charges’ every word and deed. Meanwhile, our government now similarly believes it needs something called “Total Information Access” on all of its citizens.

The burden of proving the negative–that the children really aren’t evil–lays heavy, and not only on the Governess. In our time, a similar burden rests on Saddam Hussein. Ultimately, it may be imposed upon us all: Presumably, Total Information Access will be useful in a world where everyone has to prove they’re not a terrorist.

But evil is a tricky word. We generally use it, not when we’re beginning to think about someone or something, but when we’ve already stopped. The term itself implies that deliberation is over, judgment has been passed, and all that remains is the action to be taken. Someone found guilty may have possessed a mistaken rationale, flawed justification or an alternate point of view. In the American cosmology, evil has none of these: we tend to think of it as pure malevolent effect, without any preceding cause.

Neither James’ novel–nor the current administration–publicly asks why their differing evils exist, or what made the evil so darned evil in the first place. Such questions would rob both of one undisputed purpose they serve: a great device to move a story along.

Still, points must be subtracted in places in the Streetsigns production (and, come to think of it, Bush’s current geopolitical performance art piece as well) for a certain lack of subtlety.

With suspense, it’s almost always true that less is more. Moments like those in which Jordan Smith visibly pauses to taste the word “horrible,” before saying it in his brief introduction, are to be savored. And straight out of Hitchcock comes Elisabeth Corley’s delicious, deadpan delivery that Mr. Quint is actually dead.

But Goldman’s use of atonal 20th century composer Morton Feldman, combined with other sudden sound and lighting effects, went over the top on opening night. Likewise, Mark Olson’s first, greenish video footage of Chris Chiron as Quint initially seemed an out-of-place tribute to the early animation of Terry Gilliam.

Worse yet, Rob Hamilton’s dysfunctional, perpetually moving set pieces give Swain Hall a briefly seasick ambience, as they pitch back and forth, while their noise evokes a bowling alley more than a British country garden. Indeed, given the brevity of a number of Goldman’s scenes in this adaptation, the last thing he needs is a set design that draws further attention to them.

Kate Fry’s incremental performance ever so gradually steps up the hysteria of an increasingly agitated Governess, whose hell-bent gestures at ferreting out true evil start completely civilized before they veer into the irrational.

But when the monsters do ultimately show on stage, their effect is reduced considerably. True terrors, it appears, must always remain in shadow.

Not all of the resonances in this show are as up-to-the-minute as those cited above. Nor do they necessarily need to be: Even if America didn’t invent the witch-hunt, the two still go back a long way.

Turned in one direction, the Governess’ oblique grilling of Miles and Flora recalls the children’s inquisitions in the notorious McMartin Preschool sexual abuse trials of the 1980s, in which prosecutors ostensibly talked a group of young children into believing they’d been victims of a Satanic cult. Turned another way, our Governess arrives at the same chilling conclusion–“They’re lost”–that Andrea Yates must have in Texas in 2001, just before she drowned her three children (she later told police it was the only way to save their souls). The novel and play’s final images particularly resonate in that direction.

With good reason the Governess entertains second thoughts about the true locale of monstrosity, after pushing young Miles to a precipice: “If he’s innocent, then what am I?”

But perhaps there is no witch-hunt here. Maybe the children–then and now–are, actually, damned. After all, the possibility of some subtle evil inside a 19th century brother and sister, pales on a planet where a 17-year-old was found to be the triggerman in the D.C.-area sniper attacks, and where child soldiers have committed–and in some cases, still commit–atrocities in the villages of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Chechnya, Columbia, the Philippines, the Sudan and Sri Lanka, among others. With this much evidence, who needs William Golding?

Such facts lead us to conclude that one of the true messages imbedded in The Turn of the Screw is directed as much to us as to James’ hapless Governess.

Perhaps we should worry less about the children’s souls, and more about our own.

Why? Because we’re the ones the children copy. Ultimately, they mirror us.

At least, the ones who survive do.

Particularly under the present circumstances, that may be the most horrific truth revealed in The Turn of the Screw.

While on the subject of temptation, one might also send a prayer on behalf of director Terry Janney. The N.C. State professor’s production of Stop Kiss was selected as the one North Carolina production, at the regional level, for the American College Theater Festival. Before that trial convenes on Feb. 8 in Savannah, the reconstituted cast will stage a two-night stand of the show to raise funds for the trip, this Friday and Saturday night, in the studio at Thompson Theater.

What temptations befall a director of a show encouraged to go on? “Thinking you can go in and make it 100 times better,” Janney confessed in a conversation last weekend. “Not trusting your actors, and what they and you have done already.”

“When you bring back a show,” she notes, “the tendency is to go back and fix all the things you gave up on or let slide the first time. That one line an actor never got right that drove you crazy; things like that. But you can get carried away when you start tweaking. When a line interpretation changes, sometimes the whole thing changes.”

Our March 13 review of the original production (online, at durham/2002-03-13/ae4.html) praised Tracey Phillips’ amusing, affecting infatuation as Callie, the New Yorker who knows it all but doesn’t know her own heart, and Collette Rutherford’s solid work as her new love Sara.

Their work alone makes this production well worth a second look. But with only 97 seats available for both shows, tickets are quickly disappearing. If you want to see it, you’d better get a move on: Call 515-2405 for reservations. EndBlock