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STAGE REVIEW

Stripped-down ‘Turn’ delivers plenty of suspense

Ryan Landry and Molly Schreiber play all the characters in Stoneham Theatre’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.’’ Ryan Landry and Molly Schreiber play all the characters in Stoneham Theatre’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.’’ (Craig Bailey/Perspectives)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / October 26, 2010

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STONEHAM — Henry James’s stories rely on atmosphere; the sense that we are inside both the world and the minds of his characters. This style is particularly effective in “The Turn of the Screw,’’ James’s haunting ghost story, which shifts perspectives from a nameless narrator to a lonely, frightened governess writing in her diary, ratcheting up the suspense by offering pieces of a puzzle that never fit neatly together. What makes the Stoneham Theatre’s production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation so effective is the skill of actors Molly Schreiber and Ryan Landry, who suggest just enough complexity in their characters while asking the audience to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks.

What happens in “The Turn of the Screw’’ is utterly dependent on the tricks the mind plays, both for the characters and the audience. Playwright Hatcher pares the story down to its bare bones, with one actress playing The Woman, the governess who comes to care for two disturbed children in the isolated English countryside, and one actor, The Man, playing everyone else, including the mysterious Master, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, and 10-year-old Miles.

The play opens with the nameless narrator setting the scene before morphing into the Master, who interviews a young, inexperienced governess for a position caring for his orphaned wards. He warns her not to bother him with problems, and the young woman is anxious to please. James is not subtle with his themes: The country manor is compared to Hamlet’s Elsinore (“something rotten’’), seduction and the loss of innocence are everywhere, and the many riddles that must be solved all create a swirl of mystery and suspense. Hatcher calls for just a chair on a bare stage, and designer Gianni Downs has augmented this with an imposing, raked stage, some simple, effective lighting, and an elaborate, spider-like web of lines above. Although the web is used to wonderful effect for a dramatic storm, it hangs a bit too low over the actors, occasionally casting awkward shadows.

But this 90-minute play is primarily an opportunity for actors to shine, and director Caitlin Lowans guides her two terrific actors without getting in their way. Schreiber is amazing and intense as the governess, starting as an innocent young woman eager to be loved by both the Master and his young niece and nephew, before growing increasingly frightened, neurotic, and finally determined. Schreiber cleverly keeps the story from drifting into melodrama by presenting the governess’s longing and vulnerability as well as her panic and fear.

Landry, best known as a writer and performer with his own Gold Dust Orphans, has built a reputation for performances that are anything but subtle. So it is a thrill to see him work every angle of the emotional spectrum, delivering a seductive Master and a mischievous young boy, with a practical female housekeeper in between. Opportunities to go over the top abound, but Landry always underplays, suggesting just a hint of danger in the Master, a glimpse of a manipulative child, a whiff of righteous indignation from the housekeeper.

The combination of Schreiber’s carefully calibrated intensity with Landry’s remarkably varied performance adds up to a satisfyingly spooky evening.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW Play adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the novella by Henry James.

Directed by Caitlin Lowans.

Set and lighting, Gianni Downs. Costumes, Rachel Padula-Shufelt.

At Stoneham Theatre, through Nov. 7. Tickets: $38-$44. 781-279-2200, www.stonehamtheatre.org.