By Chris Jones
Nothing gooses up a ghost story like the presence of a child, especially when the pint-size character is one of those mysterious, precocious-but-innocent critters whom adults can't fully understand and thus fear to the very bottom of their grown-up boots.
The Victorian novelist Henry James figured that out long before Hollywood. And thus his 1898 novel "The Turn of the Screw" is a ghost story set in the requisite remote, gothic mansion and features not one but two kiddies. As James himself noted in his meta-dramatic, framing introduction, if the presence of a child gives the shivers an additional "turn of the screw," then the presence of a second surely offers "two turns."
More than enough for 90 minutes in the back of a Glencoe bookstore, wouldn't you say?
Writers' Theatre Chicago is adding to the seasonal horrors on the North Shore (traffic, crowded malls, visiting in-laws) with a decent and genuinely creepy new production of Jeffrey Thatcher's skilled, two-actor dramatic adaptation of a James story that's a good deal more than pulp. As James fans well know, "The Turn of the Screw" not only is an exceedingly scary yarn, but also a strangely modern and disrupted kind of text that can be read for its Freudian themes, its psychological complexity and its lingering sense of gothic sexual guilt.
This isn't "The Woman in Black" or some kind of cheap, commercial thriller designed for mere winter entertainment. This is more of a ghostly meditation with enough payoff to satisfy the young veteran of the DVD thriller, sure, but also sufficient oomph that parents and grandparents might consider this a part of a high-schooler's literary education.
To his great credit, Thatcher manages to clarify and simplify the plumby original novel (conveniently in the public domain) without cheapening James' language. Unlike in the many filmed versions of this tale, you don't see the children. But you really don't need to.
One actress, in this case Kymberly Mellen, plays the narrating governess who may be either a victim of unspeakable paranormal horrors or a deluded young woman consumed by some kind of sexualized internal terror. One actor, in this case LaShawn Banks, plays all the other characters ranging from the master of the house to the housekeeper to, of course, the children.
Under the direction of Jessica Thebus, both performances work very nicely. Mellen's eyes seem to convey an especially intense sense of emotional longing, and yet you also view her vulnerable performance with just the right sense of unease for such an ambivalent Jamesian. Banks doesn't take his characters too far outside this intimate little box, which was a temptation surely to be avoided. Instead, with his long eyebrows forming into faces and then ripping them apart, he offers resonant little pictures of the humans rattling around this horrifying place.
Jack Magaw's set is mostly candles, curtains and mirrors. I've seen this show done before with far more attention paid to terrifying the audience with visual tricks, but Thebus focuses on keeping the fears as internal and as real as possible. And these trembling old souls are all acting right in your face.
"The Turn of the Screw"
When: Through March 30
Where: 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $45-$58 at 847-242-6000