“The Turn of the Screw” is a Gothic ghost story that is currently haunting Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater with much success. Adapted from the 1898 novel by Henry James, the delightfully creepy story is open to interpretation, which ultimately produces more questions than answers.
The hour-and-twenty-minute-long play is set in an English country estate called Bly. We are told that the events of the story unfold in seven days, with each one dramatically marked by the narrator.
An English gentleman is guardian to his orphaned nephew and niece, but he doesn’t want to have any dealings with the children. He has empowered a governess to care for Miles and Flora while he remains in London. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, quickly befriends the new governess and explains how little Flora no longer speaks after an unfortunate incident. However, with her kind and loving nature, the governess gains the trust of Flora.
The story takes a turn when the 10-year-old Miles is expelled from boarding school for mysterious reasons, and the governess begins to see two ghosts: the former governess and her lover from the estate. The new governess soon believes the children can see the apparitions as well and feels they are playing games with her, going into the garden at night and keeping secrets. As the tale progresses, the governess becomes more and more frantic and unstable.
The two-person play quickly draws the audience into the spooky tale. Kelsey Torstveit masterfully plays the governess. At the start, she is wide-eyed and innocent, ready to take on the world and love her charges unconditionally. Slowly, as the suspense builds with the aid of the noteworthy lighting design, Torstveit becomes hunchbacked and anguished in appearance as her mind grapples with what it perceives to be real.
Impressively, Joe Pietropaolo plays all the other characters, including the children. His height difference between Torstveit and himself only adds to the eerie mood. Tall and lean, the actor’s dark jacket and pants are too short on him, as if a grown man is trying to fit into a child’s clothing, bringing an Edward Gorey drawing to mind. When Pietropaolo portrays each child, Torstveit never looks at him, but rather sets her eyes on an imaginary child much shorter than she, while he answers her from behind, fully absorbed in his role.
The stark, black set is like a third character with its powerful presence and six simple pieces: a slanted black platform on which all the action takes places and symbolically represents the story’s unstable foundation; a bare tree branch hanging overhead; a Victorian-looking chandelier; a Persian rug; a doll house with furniture; and a single dining-room chair.
The mind is a powerful instrument, and in “The Turn of the Screw,” Henry James uses it to his full advantage with his characters and his audience. For over a century, the multiple interpretation of this story has been debated by scholars.
Brilliantly directed and designed by Christopher Ostrom, WHAT’s intense production of the ghost story similarly leaves a lot to the imagination. It’s up to the viewers to interpret what they see and hear, to determine whether it’s madness that undermines the governess or precipitates her story.
“The Turn of the Screw”
At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
Through Oct. 29
Information and reservations 508-349-9428