Before the action begins in Island Theatre Workshop’s (ITW) latest production, the lights go up momentarily on a gothic tableaux and we get a quick, foreboding glimpse of the brooding cast of characters in the psychological thriller, “The Turn of the Screw.” The lights flick off and back on, leaving the stage occupied solely by a dimly lit narrator who launches into one of the most spine-tingling ghost stories to occupy that literary niche.
The stage adaptation of the Henry James classic tale, as performed by four talented Island actors, manages to effectively translate the tingle-rich ghost story to the stage, where, thankfully, we get to experience it with a room full of people. Reading the novella alone on a dark night is likely to induce nightmares or insomnia.
The story has all the elements of a classic haunting tale — an isolated manor house, a beautiful young woman, a mysterious employer, and a few oddball characters who, very obviously, are guarding some dreadful family secret.
However, what sets the story apart from the ghost stories we are all too familiar with is the fact that we never quite know what really happened. James’ tale is famously ambiguous and the play manages to leave the audience questioning what they have just seen — a story of possession or madness. Either way, it’s a chilling story, well done as drama, and the uncertainty only adds to the suspense.
One of the things that ups the story’s creep factor is the first person narrative telling of the tale. The story is recounted through the journal of the tale’s heroine, an innocent young governess who’s been dispatched to a lonely manor house to take charge of two orphan children. This type of on-the-scene reportage (the early equivalent of the “found footage” device used effectively in modern day horror films) makes the transition from page to stage a relatively easy one, but also calls for a very skilled actress who can carry a play with a good deal of monologue.
Enter Chelsea McCarthy. Island audiences may be accustomed to seeing Ms. McCarthy in comedic and physical roles, so watching her in a dramatic turn where she is called upon to project the action solely through her delivery of James’ brilliant imagery, with nary a bit of humor, would seem like a challenge for the actress. However, Ms. McCarthy’s versatility is proven in this transfixing performance. The husky-voiced actress (think Kathleen Turner with a touch of girlishness) manages to convey a complicated character and keep the audience glued to their seats throughout the suspenseful drama, and she even manages to extract a few laughs from the formal language with some well-timed pauses and inflections.
Director Taffy McCarthy (Chelsea’s mother) has proven herself an expert at performing monologue in past one-woman shows for ITW (most recently she played a number of characters in “The Amish Project”). Her skill with narrative is evident in this production. The play includes a good deal of dialogue between the characters, but monologue is relied upon heavily to render James’s narrative as drama, and Taffy has done an exceptional job of keeping the audience engaged.
Two long-time veterans of ITW productions, Don Lyons and Lee Fierro, heavyweights in the roster of local acting talent, are always a pleasure to watch, and they both, once again, deliver the goods. Ms. Fierro portrays the housekeeper Mrs. Grose with just the right amount of Cockney inflection and Mr. Lyons lends his authoritative presence to the characters of both the narrator and the children’s uncle. Director Ms. McCarthy chose to cast an adult actor (Chris Roberts) to play the 10-year-old Miles, a decision that can often prove distracting. However, Mr. Roberts pulls off the feat skillfully (thanks in no small part to his boyish looks, which are not totally at odds with his costume of short pants and knee socks). The disagreeable Miles is a key role, one that epitomizes the disturbing contrast between innocence and corruption that is at the heart of the story’s horror, and Mr. Roberts manages the part very well.
The play is presented as a staged reading, although the actors were primarily off-book the whole time, even on opening night. Thanks to an obviously well-rehearsed production, the scripts quickly become as easily ignored as the letterboxing of a theatrical movie screened on TV.
Given that the play was written in the Victorian era, it’s not overly surprising that sex is at the heart of the evil lurking in the mysterious Bly mansion. And, although the story may have proved more shocking to the delicate sensibilities of its contemporary audiences, the intimation of “unspeakable acts” still manages to provoke a combination of curiosity and repulsion. Like the murky manor lake, which plays a key role in the action, it’s not so much the unseen that we dread, but the glimpses into the greyness. The images emerging from the foggy depths are almost better left undefined. In the climactic scene, where the governess almost literally wrestles with the house’s demons, we’re left with two equally unsettling options. Could lust have literally possessed two innocent children, or was degradation and insanity consuming the soul of the likeable young heroine?
The staging of the ITW production is very effectively gloomy. The set consists simply of a stark stage with just a Victorian couch and a black set of stairs. Kevin Ryan has done an exceptional job in costuming the actors — in particular Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Roberts. The elaborate, yet darkly sober Victorian costumes help set the gothic tone of the tale. Ms. Fierro’s makeup gives her just the right ghoulish look, although Ms. McCarthy, while looking strikingly lovely, may have been a little too glamorously made up for a prim governess.
Henry James’s novella has been the subject of much debate since it was published in 1898, with the discussion fairly equally split between an explanation of hallucination and demonic possession. Given that James’s brother was William James, the philosopher who wrote on religious experience and mysticism, perhaps the author intended for the two interpretations to happily co-exist.
A lively, informal debate took place after last Friday night’s performance, proving that the enigmatic story has stood the test of time and, like all good drama, the play, for better or worse, is likely to linger with audience members well into the post-performance night.
“The Turn of the Screw,” 8 pm, Oct. 27, 28, 30. 2 pm, Oct. 29, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $15; $25 for 2. 508-693-4941.