MONTPELIER — Did she imagine it, or did she really find herself in a life or death battle with ghosts of the past?
It’s 1872 and a young woman, single and longing for life, finds herself the governess of two enigmatic children at an English country estate, secluded from all but the housekeeper, or so she thinks. The more she discovers about her predecessor, the more mysterious the children become and the scarier her position becomes. When she decides to take matters into her own hands, the situation comes to a shocking climax revealing all — or does it?
Such is Henry James’ gothic tale “The Turn of the Screw,” and Lost Nation Theater opened a production of Jeffery Hatcher’s two-actor adaptation, Friday at City Hall Arts Center, that proved human, humorous and genuinely scary.
The story begins with The Woman (never named) coming to London to apply for a governess position from a wealthy and attractive gentleman, who turns out to be the children’s uncle. (The parents are dead.) She is to be in total charge — with the one stipulation that she never contact him.
Arriving at Bly, everything is unexpected. The housekeeper is quietly desperate, little Flora is mute and 10-year-old Miles has just been sent home from boarding school, expelled permanently for “unspeakable” acts. Still, The Woman is determined to make a success of it. But what is she to do about the spirits of the former governess and her lover and their hold on Flora and Miles?
And what is she to do with her own feelings as she becomes tormented and loses control?
Laura Michele Erle, a Lost Nation veteran, lived The Woman’s wild journey, bringing the audience along as she shed her innocence as a conservative parson’s daughter in favor of a motherly governess. Erle was convincing as that shell cracked and a deeper and earthier though sometimes desperate character emerged. Erle’s dimensional performance was at once sympathetic and unnerving.
Christopher Scheer, another Lost Nation veteran best known as a brilliant comic, played everyone else. Using the same quick-change skills he employed in “The 39 Steps” (2014) and the like, Scheer moved quickly — without costume change — between the uncle to Mrs. Grose the housekeeper to Miles and back. Most importantly, he convincingly delivered the emotional complexity of Miles — giving torment to The Woman.
Erle and Scheer, in all his incarnations, moved in and out of situations quickly and convincingly, culminating in the on-the-edge-of your-seat explosive ending. That was thanks to excellent ensemble acting expertly directed by Kim Allen Bent, Lost Nation’s founding artistic director.
Still, Friday’s opening night performance seemed a bit stilted at the beginning with its oh-so-British mannerisms, but the interaction soon took on a naturalness. Some literalism in this suggestive piece also proved a minor distraction. But it didn’t take long to delve deeply into the humor and darkness.
Lost Nation’s physical production, while attractive, did little to enhance the story. Donna Stafford’s set pieces were more neutral than suggestive, while David Schraffenberger’s lighting successfully focused attention, but it was a bit bright for the subject matter. Charis Churchill’s period costumes were most attractive, and Tim Tavcar’s choices of recorded incidental music were elegant as well as eerie.
Lost Nation Theater’s “The Turn of the Screw” proved rich storytelling, riveting, entertaining and frightening.