Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” his horror novella originally published in serial format in Collier’s Weekly in 1898, tells of a governess who, caring for two children at a remote estate, becomes convinced that the grounds are haunted. And her experiences make for a perfect Halloween thriller.
The novella has been adapted numerous times in radio drama, film, stage and television, including a 1950 Broadway play and the 1961 film “The Innocents.” In 1966, Jeffrey Hatcher recast the novella for two actors and one set.
“A lot of people love the book, but a lot of people hate the book because it’s so ambiguous,” explained Melissa Lourie, founder and artistic director of Middlebury Actors Workshop.
“The way Hatcher has adapted it is so wonderful because it suggests so much, and the audience is forced to imagine so much,” she said recently by phone. “Ultimately, it works as a very creepy ghost story with a strong psychological component.”
But, she added, “A lot of people decided it isn’t a ghost story, but a portrait of a sexually repressed, psychotic woman.”
Lourie will direct when Middlebury Actors Workshop, Town Hall Theater’s resident professional theater company, presents “The Turn Of The Screw” Nov. 1-4. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Performances will continue at 8 p.m. Nov. 15 and 16 at FlynnSpace in Burlington.
In ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ a London bachelor hires an inexperienced young woman to care for his recently orphaned niece and nephew at Bly, his country estate. As governess, she is to be in charge of the household. His condition for the job is she must not communicate with him or trouble him about anything. No matter what.
Once at Bly, she begins to see the ghostly apparitions of a strange man and a woman. What is more, the children’s odd behavior makes her believe they are in league with the specters. She is determined to save the children from the ghosts, whom, she is convinced, are trying to possess the children, body and soul.
“It’s hard work for the actors. It’s extremely hard for the actors because it’s just the two of them in a very intimate, thrilling, very heightened story — with no break whatsoever,” Lourie said.
For the governess, Lourie chose Grace Experience, a Middlebury native and now an Equity (union) professional actress in New York City. She is the daughter of Vermont author Chris Bohjalian, and a recent graduate of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
“I needed a young woman who was capable of carrying a show like this,” Lourie said. “There was nobody local that young, I thought, that could play the part. So I thought, if I’m going to get a New York actor, it’d be a great to get one with local ties.”
Experience fit the bill, and was eager to play the part.
“She has a perfect quality for this role, which is, she’s beautiful, vulnerable, delicate, very lady-like and feminine, and yet she has the depth and complexity to go into the places she needs to go,” Lourie said. “You’ll have no trouble believing her as a 19th-century governess. She’s really good.”
Burlington actor Bruce Campbell co-stars as the remainder of the characters.
“He has this kind of gravitas, and this ability to do character work that I just thought would be perfect,” Lourie said. “And he can really pull off the English gentleman at the same time as the other stuff.”
The physical production, though, is comparatively simple.
“There aren’t a lot of technical elements; there’s no sound design. It’s all done by the actors, but the lighting is going to be very key,” Lourie said. “It has everything I like, which is total theatrical minimalism with maximum direct engagement with a story. It’s totally up to the actors and director to make it thrilling.”
Choosing Halloween-time was no accident.
“We open on the Day on of the Dead, and it’s also classic literature, so we’ll have our tie in to schools,” Lourie said. “The (Middlebury) high school English classes are coming to see it.”
And Town Hall Theater will be ready for this spooky storytelling.
“We are going to set up the theater so that the audience is on three sides of the central playing area,” Lourie said. “It is like you are being told an incredibly eerie story, and seeing it play out right in front of you at the same time. You will really get into the governess’ head. I think audiences are going to love the immersive experience.”
There will be a post-show discussion led by Cates Baldridge, Middlebury College professor of English and American literature, after the Nov. 4 Sunday matinee.
jim.lowe @timesargus.com / jim.lowe @rutlandherald.com