Spare Scare

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James's famous ghost story, is filled with gorgeous gothic images: lonely veils of moonlight, long rustling petticoats, dark spiraling staircases and velvet drapes sweeping the floor. But James, with his massive intellect and psychological curiosity, would never be content to tell a simple tale of pretty horror. Underneath all the squeaking staircases and terrifying visions of dead people is what many believe to be James's most pointed attack on the destructiveness of Victorian sexual repression.

The play was first published in 1898, just three years after Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for his homosexual relationship with the Lord Alfred Douglass. James (who also is believed to have been gay) alludes to "the love that could not speak its name" throughout the book. He also takes on the plight of the repressed Victorian woman and shows how sexual desire kept under the lock and key of proper etiquette at the turn of the 20th century can cause the most terrible kind of violence. All this is brought to dramatic and spooky life in Stages' spare and stately production of this timely Halloween tale.

Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation is told like any scary story should be, in dark half-lights, on a vapory stage, without intermission. Sounding ever so British and oh so stuffy, narrator Jason Douglas steps out dressed in a coal-colored suit complete with Victorian tails. He introduces the characters played by only two actors. There is the sexually repressed, straitlaced, pretty young governess played by Luci Christian; and there's everybody else -- all played by Douglas, including a naughty little boy named Miles, a housekeeper named Mrs. Grose and the always absent, drop-dead sexy master of the house.

Miles and his tiny sister, Flora, are orphans left in the care of their coldhearted, handsome uncle, who has hidden them away on the fine English estate of Bly. So that he'll be able to carry on his roustabout Victorian bachelor lifestyle, he calls on the services of a lovely, young and utterly inexperienced governess to care for his charges. He offers her complete control as long as she keeps to one condition: that she never, ever contact him about anything. The guileless governess-to-be watches the handsome master like a schoolgirl in heat. Practically panting at his every gesture, she is completely seduced by the man's good looks and his unyielding power, though he doesn't lay a finger on her.

Once at Bly, the governess tries her best to do good work, though she's clearly stuck in the middle of nowhere. The place is pretty, but tiny Flora, who doesn't speak a word, and the aging housekeeper are her only company. The governess wanders the grounds dreaming of the master during the day. At night she listens to Mrs. Grose tell the sad tale of what happened to her predecessor, Miss Jessel, who mysteriously "went away."

Turns out that the tarty Miss Jessel was getting some of what the new governess so desperately desires. Of course, Jessel paid with her life for her sexcapades. This is Victorian England, after all, and no well-bred woman could act on amorous feelings without getting what for. Utterly bedeviled with desire, the repressed governess begins to see the ghost of Miss Jessel absolutely everywhere -- at the lake, on the grounds, in the bedroom. To make things worse, little Miles gets kicked out of school for saying "bad things" to other boys, things he can't repeat; and once he comes home, the governess can barely contain herself. Think Mary Kay LeTourneau in a little black bonnet and a long stately dress. All this is told through clever innuendo. In fact, the entire production could be viewed as a simple ghost story. But it's much more fun to think of all that can be read into James's tale.

Douglas and Christian do an excellent job of developing complex characters whose motivations are ambiguous. Christian's governess is all breathless loveliness and can be read simply as a girl full of nervousness, or perhaps she's full of the deeper, more erotic cravings of an imaginative young woman who's coming of age in a lonely place. Douglas, too, does a terrific job with his multiple roles. Especially good as the young Miles, he is both rarefied and creepy, with a boyish smile that snakes across his lips as he glances at his governess, his face full of oblique intentions.

This comes together under Laura Josepher's nicely compressed direction, which keeps a careful and spooky torque as the story builds to its inevitable ghostly conclusion. In fact, the only misstep is at the end, where she skips her opportunity to fill the closing image with double readings.

Otherwise, the story is all devilish innuendo, vapory ghosts, gauzy yellow lights and heavy dark clothes that swish along set designer Kirk Markley's brooding spiral staircase. It's the best sort of ghost tale: foreboding, mysterious, dangerous and all grown up.