Henry James examines madness

By Chris Simmons

When your nightly routine includes madly screaming into your pillow, you might need a friend to confide in. Don’t tell your Mom though, she’ll send you away. Just go see the Pleiades Theatre’s newest production, The Turn of The Screw, and you’ll meet a fellow inhabitant of I-think-I-might-be-crazy land.

The play follows the thread of a young governess (Suzanne Debney) who falls into a labyrinth of madness and evil when she begins her new position for an aristocrat named Bly. The labyrinth may be inhabited by ghosts, but is she in the labyrinth or is the labyrinth in her? We can’t tell. We never get that omniscient perspective that reveals whether the ghosts she witnesses are real or a product of her psychosis.

After arriving, her duty is to take care of Mr. Bly’s two children and, the ordinary quickly transforms into the uncanny. The house, its inhabitants and past are all surrounded by immorality and evil. The last governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover, Peter Quint, were killed under mysterious circumstances after Quint seduced Miss Jessel and took Mr. Bly’s son under his demonic tutelage.

Now the new governess arrives with orders to never contact Mr. Bly. Her charges are Bly’s mute daughter and Quint’s former protégé who was recently expelled from boarding school for corrupting other children. But she also finds some unexpected charges in the form of Quint and Jessel’s ghosts, who refuse to lay quiet in their graves.

This is where the play excels. The governess’ claim to see visions of the ghosts escalate as does the tension between the children and the governess. Through superb acting by Tony Eyamie (who plays all the roles but the governess) and great music and lighting, the audience is plunged deeper into the madness surrounding the governess.

Perhaps the best scene is when Eyamie, playing the boy, hammers out a wild-eyed, mad tune on the piano accompanied by the rants and raves of the governess as she desperately tries to catch her mind. Debney’s performance excels by convincing us that her madness might be shared. The stage crew deserve as many accolades as the actors and director. They use minimal equipment and get incredible results by weaving the music, lighting and props into the movement of the dialogue.

You’d might already know from the popularity of Regis Philbin that present day America has a strong taste for the devil, but early American history is even more strongly enamoured with the diabolic. The Turn of the Screw is no different from its historical context. America was built on horrible bloodshed (witch hunts, civil war, slavery) and, although it likes to forget this, we can taste the horror in the Turn of the Screw.

In this production, we see how good the theatre can be when the writing is great, effects are used to their maximum and the storytelling is innovative. The Turn of the Screw runs from March 11 to April 16 at the Pleiades Theatre.

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