A ghost story on a midsummer’s night may seem a little counter-intuitive in keeping with the season; that said, I have to admit — when a story works, it works. “The Turn of the Screw,” playing at Princeton Summer Theater on the Princeton University campus through Sunday, July 11, is a suitably spooky ghost story and rock-solid testament to the talents of two young actors in the telling of a spellbinding, confounding, thought-provoking, and altogether enjoyable evening of theater.
Adapted from Henry James’ novella, Jeffrey Hatcher (best known for the film “Stage Beauty” and the play from which it was adapted) sticks closely to the original work’s structure and twists and turns. As in the novella, a young governess is “seduced” by a charismatic aristocrat; her heightened sense of romanticism and naivete lures her into a journey to the English countryside to take charge of eight-year-old Flora and her 10-year-old brother, Miles. Flora doesn’t speak, Miles shows signs of dangerous imbalance, and the housekeeper warns of a past incident that scarred both children deeply. Over the course of a week, the mystery of what happened to these children unfolds, as a pair of malevolent spirits reveal themselves and their horrific designs on the inhabitants of the isolated country estate.
Long story short: if you’ve read the spooky little story, you know, plot-wise, exactly what you’re getting here. The wonder of this tale, however, comes in its telling; Hatcher has pared the cast down to two: the stalwart Governess (Heather May), in the midst of the story’s supernatural maelstrom, and a versatile “Man” (Andy Linz), who shifts his way through a myriad of roles. Director Domnique Salerno chooses to take this same tactic and cascade it through the show’s design, presentation, and pace, with words and characterization handling the heavy lifting. The resulting effect is an amped-up version of a campfire ghost story: intimate, trusted, and tense, as it beckons you to lean in while the storyteller preps his mostly ghastly revelations under the grim glow of a flashlight.
And, for the most part, it’s an effectively minimalist tactic. Linz flows readily from one role to another, from a wealthy and dashing Londoner to an elderly housekeeper to a 10-year-old boy and back again, and May responds dynamically and uniquely to each new face. Allen Grimm’s sparse set design allows for the focus to set completely on the actors, with delicately-chosen color and an overhead chandelier ably drawing attention exactly where it needs to go. The “no frills” presentation is slightly turned on its ear late in the evening, making for a strong surprise at the play’s climax.
Salerno’s choice to cherry-pick some ghost-story tactics results in a subtle and nuanced application of casual and unexpected fear. We’re drawn in by the almost-folksy nature of the two-person storytelling, and when things take a more macabre and deadly turn, the result is a feeling of edge-of-your-seat immediateness and dread. Without special effects, without gore, without a need for boogeyman-ish “boo!” jump-scares, the PST company creates an ever-encroaching sense of dread and foreboding that erupts, almost without warning, into a life-or-death struggle for the souls of both the governess and her charges.
I had a great time at “The Turn of the Screw”; I have to readily acknowledge, however, that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea as far as summer fare goes. If you like your theater chock full of props and set pieces and window-dressing, you won’t find it here; a lone chair, a chandelier, and a restrained use of environmental effects are all we get to portray the Harley Street manor where the tale begins and the country estate where the bulk of it unfolds. I have to admire the company’s dedication to the stripped-down aesthetic of the writing in every aspect of the production — but it also isn’t completely successful. For all his chameleonic skill, Linz’s gull’s cry, used to mark the passage of time and further heighten the mood, comes across as a little awkward and unintentionally funny. I was left wishing that a Foley artist (the person on a film crew who creates most of the natural, everyday sounds) or other method of employing a soundscape had been utilized; it’s that one additional task lumped upon two hardworking actors that overtaxes their considerable charm and breadth.
“The Turn of the Screw” isn’t what I’d consider an obvious choice for a summer theater’s repertoire; it doesn’t leave you trading bon mots with your date or ready to bound on over to Thomas Sweet’s for a post-show ice cream in a cloud of forgettable cheeriness. But it’s an awfully brave one for this talented young company, and I both applaud their choice and the deft, beyond-their-years focus and nuance in presenting this piece. If you are in the mood for a solid chiller and a spirited debate on the exact nature of this brief tale’s complex conclusion, take in “The Turn of the Screw.” You won’t be dissappointed.
“The Turn of the Screw,” Princeton Summer Theater, through Sunday, July 11, Hamilton Murray Theater, Henry James thriller. $16. 609-258-7062 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.