Around this time of year, theater companies across the country dust off their favorite gothic dramas in hopes of filling a few seats with patrons, and then scaring the bejeebus out of them. San Jose Stage is doing its Halloween thing through November 2, 2008 with a fine production of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Originally written as a newspaper serial before being turned into a novella in 1898, a Benjamin Brittan opera in 1954, and a movie in 1961 (Truman Capote co-wrote the script), James's ghost story was adapted for the stage in 1996 by Jeffrey Hatcher.
In Hatcher's hands, James's fever dream is spare and unadorned, leaving almost as much to the imagination as if one were reading a book or being told a story round a campfire. Director Rick Singleton has adhered to the playwright's instructions that there be no props or costume changes. He has, however, given his actors a single chair to sit on, as well as a couple of flights of stairs to climb and descend in order to punctuate the play's various scene changes. He's even snuck in a few sound cues, usually in the form of a disembodied voice intoning words like "footfall, footfall" instead of the sounds themselves. Again, our imagination is called upon to fill in the blanks, which only heightens our sense of dread as James's creepy yarn unwinds.
Equally frugal is the casting, which is limited to a single pair of actors. Chloë Bronzan plays "The Woman," who has been hired by "The Man" (Michael C. Storm) to be the governess of his young niece Flora and nephew Miles (also played by Storm). We never see Flora, although Bronzan paints a fairly vivid picture of the urchin, as does Storm in his capacity as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper at Bly House where the children have been sequestered by their uncle, the Man.
From the first scene, in which the all-powerful Man interviews the subservient Woman, we are given strong hints of sexual mischief between unequals. The Woman is here for a job that only the Man can bestow. She must do anything to get it, including not asking questions about those who have preceded her, not contacting him for any reason whatsoever once she arrives at Bly House, and being willing to get down on her knees to agree to his conditions with the words "I do." "Success," he purrs, "I have seduced you." In fact, the Woman is perfectly happy to be seduced as marriage to her master is her secret, dare-not-speak-its-name desire.
Storm does a wonderful job with his various parts, all performed in the same black suit that he's wearing when we meet him. As Mrs. Grose, he pulls in one arm slightly, as a bird might do to protect an injured wing, and he walks with the subtle shuffle of someone who has done a lot of heavy lifting during her life, but whose body was probably not built for it. Storm gives Mrs. Grose's voice a feminine lilt, but only to communicate to us that he has shifted characters, not to attempt a full-on female impersonation. His acting, in other words, is as functional and economical as the playwright's vision for the piece itself. Smart.
As Miles, Storm stands erect. His manner is polite, but there's a Stepford edge to his delivery, as if he knows exactly what to say to an adult to assure them that everything -- whatever that everything might be -- is okay. Such behavior in a 10-year-old can only be the product of some sort of premature self-knowledge, the contents of which becomes increasingly unnerving as we learn more and more about the boy and the demons that the governess believes are controlling his soul -- it is not enough, apparently, that in their prior, mortal forms these ghosts irreparably corrupted and compromised the lad's flesh.
Which brings us back to Bronzan, who, unlike Storm, has only one persona to inhabit. Not to take anything away from Storm's performance, but he has the luxury of being able to move from character to character as the play progresses and its story builds. Bronzan has the tougher task; as the play's narrator, she must tell us a tale while convincing us that she is actually seeing spirits and specters. At the same time, and by design of the playwright, she must also behave in a way that suggests that she may just be a little bit nuts.
Hatcher did not want his audiences to conclude one way or the other that Bly House is or is not haunted by the pair of lovers and pedophiles who used to roam its halls and grounds. For the record, I'm generally impatient with authors who want to have it both ways in the name of art. We will eventually make up our minds, regardless of the playwright's aims; why shouldn't he be forced to show his cards, too?
Bronzan only gets her character half right, which is not to say that her performance is a failure. Standing virtually alone on an essentially bare stage, she had me convinced that she was seeing ghosts, and several of her screams and expressions of fright caught me by surprise. Even the way she described the apparitions before her gave me goose flesh, and Storm's Mrs. Grose lent even more credibility to the governess's perception of reality when she dropped her mask of reserve and became a co-conspirator with the governess in the dirty little secrets of Bly House.
So I guess I didn't notice the moment when Bronzan was supposed to transition from ghost chaser to lunatic, as the playwright would have it, because I figured that Bronzan was playing a governess who was simply going a little bit crazy because she had just seen a couple of ghosts with designs on the children she has been hired to protect. I suppose it would have been a neat trick to have pulled off the intended character arc, but I was more than satisfied by the treat of Bronzan's performance. She had, as the Man so succinctly puts it, seduced me.
The Turn of the Screw runs through November 2, 2008 at San Jose Stage. For tickets and information, visit sanjose-stage.com.