Filigree Theatre's The Turn of the Screw

The carefully crafted atmosphere in the staging of this ghost story may have you wondering if unseen spirits are lurking in the dark

James Lindsley (l) and Paulina Fricke-Fox in Filigree Theatre's The Turn of the Screw (Photo by Steve Rogers Photography)

A man of considerable wealth and power. A young woman anxiously seeking employment. Unreasonable demands by him that she's not to question – demands that highlight the uneven power dynamic between them. Intimations of indecent relations. We've seen this situation before, and it never ends well. So it is in The Turn of the Screw, but despite the salacious sounding title, Henry James' novella takes a different path to its distressing conclusion, one in which the young heroine doesn't suffer unwanted attentions from a man but from ghosts. She's a governess whose charge to care for two children at a remote country estate brings her into contact with malevolent spirits. Or does it?

Ever since the tale's publication in 1898, readers and critics have debated whether the governess is truly the victim of supernatural forces or just of her own unsettled mind. The adaptation that Filigree Theatre has mounted does nothing to resolve the question. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's spare, two-actor take provides no specters onstage – not so much as a bloody Banquo – only the governess' expression of horror when she believes she sees the apparitions.

And there is horror on the face of Paulina Fricke-Fox's Governess in Filigree's staging. Swallowed in darkness – black backdrop, black clothing, and just enough light to illuminate the actors' faces – Fricke-Fox in those moments takes on the stricken look of one trapped in a nightmare, forced to confront something abominable. That aspect is in sharp contrast to the one she wears in the opening scene, when her character is working to impress the London gentleman who has advertised for a governess. Then, Fricke-Fox beams, her cheery smile and bright eyes trying to mask her nerves over the position that the gentleman coolly describes in mysterious terms and which, he tells her, will subject her to great loneliness. (James Lindsley makes this gentleman so aloof that he might be speaking to her from another room.) Fricke-Fox diligently charts her character's journey from an eager-to-please soul to a troubled one as she learns that the previous governess, now dead, and a valet, also dead, were involved not only with each other but also possibly the children, then ultimately to a terrified one as she becomes convinced that the eerie figures she sees are the former governess and valet working to possess the children. Fricke-Fox's increasingly desperate demeanor could be read as that of someone in a frantic battle to save children's souls from an unearthly evil, or that of someone who's been lost to madness.

Beside Fricke-Fox every step of this harrowing way is Lindsley, first as the remote gentleman, then as the estate's housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and the boy Miles, whose recent behavior at his school was wicked enough for him to be expelled permanently. Lindsley's Mrs. Grose is as warm as his gentleman is frosty, projecting graciousness and decency, though in an understated way – a servant's way, knowing her place and never stepping beyond it; she lives to help, and Lindsley makes clear that she tries to be the governess' ally, to the degree that she can. In his Miles, on the other hand, you can sense mischief just below the surface, a desire to go beyond what's proper, to break the rules. And in a surprising moment, he does, to creepy effect here. That moment plays off the production's ghost-story atmospherics so effectively that you may wonder if there are malicious phantoms lurking in the dark around you.

That dark has been carefully crafted by the creative team – the funereal Victorian outfits by Jennifer Rose Davis; the limited lighting, evoking midnight in a haunted mansion, by Alison Lewis; the escalating tension orchestrated by Filigree Producing Artistic Director Elizabeth V. Newman – and it serves them well, right up to the last moment, when the governess' fears about the ghosts are whipped into a frenzy, and the result is tragic. That's when all the lights go out, and in the blackness we can savor the uncanny thrill we get from such stories, and ever so briefly be the unseen spirits that give us such pleasurable scares.

The Turn of the Screw

Romy Suskin Photography Studio, 2617 S. First,
Through Feb. 9
Running time: 1 hr., 15 min.

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Filigree Theatre, Jeffrey Hatcher, Elizabeth V. Newman, Paulina Fricke-Fox, James Lindsley, Jennifer Rose Davis, Alison Lewis, Henry James

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