The Turn of the Screw
Reviewed by David Kashimba
Photo by Jeff Thomas

Director Sheri Lee Miller, together with an excellent cast, dig deeply into the many twists and turns of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. James’ novel, adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher, walks a tightrope between the supernatural and the stark reality of sexual perversion.

There is no one interpretation of this intricate drama, but in light of today’s world filled with news of grownups praying on innocent children, many in the trusted positions of teachers and clergy, the character of the governess (Victoria Rhoades) soon starts setting off alarm bells. Hired to take care of two children, it doesn’t take long for the audience to start questioning her moral fiber. When she speaks of the children, she wants “to keep them innocent forever.” Spoken in such a soft tone, we tend to dismiss this extreme statement. But as the drama unfolds there’s an accumulation of subtle words and actions by the governess like the way she accuses young Miles (Steven Abbott) of being a tease. By the time she sees her mission in life as one of “fighting” for the children’s innocence against the corrupting influence of two ghosts that only she sees, every parent in the audience is ready to call 911.

But alas, Henry James wrote this ghost story in the late 1800s before emergency phone numbers existed, and he wrote it in an age-old tradition of English tales of the supernatural. Indeed, the subtlety of the drama is meant to question whether the ghosts do pose an evil influence on the children or whether they’re merely a figment of the governess’ warped, sexually suppressed imagination.

It is suggested that when the ghosts were alive and living in the same house with the children, they carried on sexually and that the children often witnessed those sensual interactions. Did these incidents act to traumatize the children or merely make them promiscuous? It’s this question that seems to swoon in the brain of the governess, and with her own sexuality frozen in adolescence by a strict religious upbringing, these thoughts become dangerous.

While The Turn of the Screw will mean different things to different people, it is an undeniably subtle journey into how easily an adult, in a position of trust and authority over children, can be led to believe that a child’s exuberance and willingness to play adult, makes them old enough to know what they want.

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