BENNINGTON, Vt. — Director Jillian Armenante has been wanting to direct Jeffrey Hatcher’s stage adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” for more than 20 years. Opportunity never came knocking. Now it has.
Armenante’s production of “The Turn of the Screw” for Oldcastle Theatre Company opens Friday, Sept. 3, at Bennington Performing Arts Center, where it is scheduled to run through Sept. 12.
Considered by many to be the gold standard for ghost stories, “The Turn of the Screw” was serialized in Collier’s Weekly in 1898 and subsequently published as a novella. It tells the story of a young governess who is hired to look after two orphan siblings, Miles and Flora, who live on a remote estate outside London. It is not long before the governess comes to believe that the children are being haunted by the specters of their previous governess, Miss Jessel, who committed suicide, and the estate’s groundskeeper, Peter Quint, who died under mysterious circumstances.
Hatcher’s adaptation is the essence of both simplicity and complexity. He wrote the play for only two actors — one female to play the governess; one male to play all the other characters.
The specters of Jessel and Quint never appear onstage. And so, among the questions that have haunted James’ readers and Hatcher’s audiences, is whether the apparitions are real or imagined as this naive governess is thrown into a physical, psychological and emotional setting that is alien to anything she has known.
Hatcher’s “The Turn of the Screw” was commissioned in 1995 by Greg Leaming, then artistic director of Portland Stage Company in Maine where the play was workshopped and developed at the theater’s Little Festival of the Unexpected and had its premiere in 1996. The play was produced at Primary Stages in New York in March 1999 and has since been widely produced at regional and college theaters.
Like the novella, Hatcher’s play takes a deep, subtle dive into the labyrinth of the mind and psyche in an era of restraint and repression, especially sexual repression.
“That kind of restraint,” said Rebecca Mozo, who is playing the governess, “I just don’t think it’s a natural state for us.”
“The only thing that can’t be restrained is the imagination,” said Armanente in a joint pre-rehearsal interview at the performing arts center with her actors, Mozo and Oliver Wadsworth.
“This is a time period of rigid furniture, Gothic art; corseted, buttoned. The moment a Victorian woman gets to run her own show (she’s restrained).”
There is a moment in “Turn of the Screw” in which the governess catches a glimpse of her body in a full-length mirror. “She’s never even seen herself until then,” Armanente said.
The governess has lived a protected life. She shows up at her job interview as a naive young woman looking for “a better life than what she’s had,” Mozo said. “There is little she knows or understands about the world. She is tightly wound.”
She is a study in restraint and release; “like a pressure cooker,” Mozo said. The governess’ journey over the course of the play is to gain her own power, even if that comes at a cost.
“The governess has an unrequited need for love and belonging,” Armanente said. “That’s where she dwells.”
“We can never really fully know anyone,” Wadsworth said. “We can go along on the journey with them and try to understand. Theater is about who we are.”
“I know a lot of people who are unfinished,” Armanente said. “I manifest them every day.”