Henry James’ intentions take center stage at St. Vincent Theatre
Early 20th-century essayists and scholars never agreed on whether the governess in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” had a troubled mind or if ghosts really were threatening her two young charges.
“It’s ambiguous,” says Annie Reilly, who plays the part of the governess in the stage adaptation performed by the St. Vincent Theatre.
That unsettling question is one of the appeals of the novella. It has been debated in literary circles since it was first published in England in 1898 as a 12-part serial in Collier’s Weekly.
“No matter what people make of it, it’s a really chilling story that has an element of terror in it,” Reilly says. “There’s a certain uncanny horror when the children are the target of ghosts.”
Jeffrey Hatcher’s stage version uses just two actors. Reilly is the governess, through whose eyes the story unfolds. Jarrod DiGiorgi, an actor living in New York City, plays an assortment of characters, including the uncle of the children, a little boy named Miles, and Mrs. Grose, who works at the English manor, too.
There also is a little girl named Flora who, DiGiorgi says, “isn’t portrayed much onstage.”
The story takes place around 1870.
“The premise is that a governess of two small wealthy children has to deal with apparitions and ghosts,” he says.
Although the governess led a sheltered life, she is a very strong and determined character.
“She’s not going to let anyone take advantage of the children,” Reilly says.
James wrote the novella at a time when many educated American and British readers believed in ghosts and spirituality. He was familiar with transcendentalism and his father and brother were members of The Society for Psychical Research, which was founded in 1882 as an offshoot of the Cambridge Ghost Club.
In the prologue to this classic, James noted that he had built the story around a tale that he heard in an old country home one winter afternoon.
For more than a century, critics have been asking about the story and its subsequent movies, opera and play: Is it madness, or are the ghosts real?
“It’s a very emotional story, sometimes very dramatic and very scary, and sometimes very touching,” DiGiorgi says.
One setting suggests the various locales inside and outside the manor, and different hallways and corridors.
“There are no costume changes,” says DiGiorgi, who switches from portraying a woman and a boy by changing voices, attitude and body postures. “It’s very challenging, but it works very well.”
|‘The Turn of the Screw’|