Chills abound in First Folio ghost tale
Glancing up as I left the Mayslake Peabody Estate following the opening night performance of First Folio Theatre's "The Turn of the Screw," I noticed a figure framed in the second floor window.
He stood fixed, with his arm outstretched, as if he were hailing someone standing on the well-manicured lawn of the Oak Brook manor. Yet, the other theatergoers seemed to take no notice of the figure. Perhaps I was mistaken.
Either way, the experience proved a fitting postscript to First Folio's chilling revival of Jeffrey Hatcher's lean, keenly suggestive adaptation of the 1898 novella by Henry James.
Part ghost story, part psychological thriller, "The Turn of the Screw" centers on a lonely, young governess who fears dark forces have enthralled her young charges. Rooted in sexual repression and hinting at child abuse, it is a tale fraught with ambiguity which director Alison C. Vesely exploits to splendid effect. Statements carry multiple meanings. Perception is problematic. Sanity is suspect.
In co-stars Melanie Keller and Nick Sandys, Vesely has actors capable of exquisite subtlety and enormous power. Clothed in Emily Waecker's rich period costumes, Keller and Sandys are a well-matched pair. Keller -- who makes sure we never doubt her good intentions -- carefully lays the groundwork for her character's transition from fluttery fervor to full-on anguish. As for Sandys, he not only morphs seamlessly from one character to the next, he supplies sound effects. (Try not to flinch when he intones the footfalls that help to unhinge the would-be heroine.)
Their performances make for a nicely nuanced, sometimes humorous and altogether suspenseful production that contains moments so tense it seemed as if the entire audience was holding its breath.
Set in 19th century England, the action unfolds on a claustrophobic, elegantly eerie set by Christopher Jensen, and is accompanied by Christopher Kriz's suitably foreboding sound and Michael McNamara's evocative lighting.
It begins with a consumptive narrator, played by Sandys, who takes on multiple roles. Shrouded in shadows that hollow out his eyes, making him appear almost an apparition himself, the narrator relates a tale about an untried young governess (the unfailingly sincere Keller) "seduced" by a suave, wealthy bachelor (the toying, artfully suggestive Sandys) into taking charge of his orphaned niece and nephew at his remote, country estate. She is to have complete authority, with the caveat that she never contact him about the children, as his "affairs take up all of my time."
Fancying herself another Jane Eyre and fueled by romantic fantasies involving her employer, the woman sets off to "seduce" young Flora (a mute character whom the audience never sees), and her canny elder brother, 10-year-old Miles (the enigmatic, wonderfully boyish Sandys), who arrives home having been expelled from boarding school for a reason neither he nor his headmaster will explain.
While the governess seems to endear herself to the children and their salt-of-the-earth housekeeper Mrs. Grose (a pleasantly indulgent Sandys), the honeymoon is short-lived. The ghosts of her predecessor Miss Jessel, and that woman's lover, the valet Peter Quint, haunt the governess, who believes they intend to harm the children. Her fears lead to increasingly aggressive efforts to shelter the children.
But are they justified?
That is the crux of James' tale. Are supernatural forces luring innocent children? Or are the so-called ghosts the fevered hallucinations of an unstable woman's descent into madness? Are the children, particularly Miles, innocent? Or are they complicit?
The play's psychosexual subtext strongly hints at child sexual abuse and possible pedophilia. Then there's the suggestion that the governess may be experiencing what psychoanalysts call transference, and that her own neuroses, coupled with a desire to be perceived as a kind of savior, spark the psychological turmoil.
Or it may be that she is the one person standing between the children and their damnation.
See the show and decide for yourself. And let me know if you observe anything in the second floor window.
"The Turn of the Screw"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067, firstfolio.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through April 29
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $26-$37 (discounts available for students and seniors)
Parking: Free lot adjacent to the estate
Rating: For teens and older; psychosexual undertones