Theatre Review

Turn of the Screw at Sierra Madre Playhouse

In 1898, the British-American author Henry James wrote a serialized ghost story for Colliers Magazine entitled “The Turn of the Screw,” which was later published as a novella and became one of the most celebrated and widely discussed ghost stories in all of Western literature.

The story centers on a governess who cares for two recently orphaned young children in a lonely English manor house. When the governess begins to see the ghosts of her predecessor and a former valet, she struggles to shield the children from the apparition. However, James’ story raises the troubling psychological question — hotly debated by later readers and critics — were the ghosts “real” or a product of the governess’s fevered imagination?

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of the novella into a two-person play does not resolve the question, but rather provides a challenging and entertaining piece for performers and audiences alike. In the production at Sierra Madre Playhouse, under the direction of Jeremiah Peay, actors Michael Mullen and Shayna Gabrielle rise to the challenge, providing versatility and range in their performances.

Turn off the Screw. Photo by Berrie Tsang
The Turn off the Screw. Photo by Berrie Tsang

Gabrielle handles the shifting and often ambiguous emotions of the governess with skill and precision, leaving us wondering about her true state of mind, which becomes the central question of the play. Mullen gives a virtuoso performance in multiple characters, from a stiff English aristocrat to an elderly housekeeper to an eccentric and troubled young boy. Mullen is a one-man theater phenom who both thrills and delights.

Turn off the Screw. Photo by Berrie Tsang
The Turn of the Screw. Photo by Berrie Tsang

Unlike most plays, the audience is left with more questions than answers. Rather than a typical whodunit, James has created (and Hatcher adapted) a play that does not reveal so much as challenge — what is James intending to say about these characters and issues like the supernatural and the psychological. It is this ambiguity that makes the piece intriguing and well worth this latest production.

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