Stoneham Theatre's staging TheTurn of the Screw in time for Halloween (it plays through November 7) comes as no surprise, but director Caitlin Lowans turned heads when she cast Gold Dust Orphans founder Ryan Landry as one of her two stars in Jeffrey Hatcher's 1997 two-actor adaptation. Landry's local reputation includes directing, writing, and acting in glittery, gimmicky drag shows like Who's Afraid of the Virgin Mary? and Phantom of the Oprah. But in Hatcher's minimalist adaptation, Landry proves he can do without glitter or gimmicks. Meanwhile, his co-star, Molly Schreiber, shows that though she doesn't have a local reputation herself yet, she deserves one.
Hatcher's one-act adapts Henry James's late-Victorian novella about a governess and her two young charges — a tale that remains one of the most famous ghost stories in the canon. There have been multiple adaptations, among them the famous Benjamin Britten opera. But Hatcher's stage version is unique in that it employs just two actors, a sparse set, no sound effects, no costume changes, and little to no theatrical trickery. Schreiber is the young governess of the House of Bly. Landry plays the narrator, the governess's enigmatic employer, housekeeper Mrs. Grose, 10-year-old nephew Miles, and every other role. (Eight-year-old Flora, the governess's other charge, is neither seen nor heard in this version; the two actors play to her invisible presence.) Lowans has allowed the duo a few comedic moments — particularly early on, before the governess begins to suspect that her new home is haunted — but Landry's drag turn as Mrs. Grose isn't just played for laughs. Both he and Schreiber resist the urge to ham it up; the occasional comedy emerges from Hatcher's dialogue.
At first, Schreiber's governess basks in a naive glow of optimism. She isn't even suspicious of her employer's one peculiar request: never to "trouble" him with concerns about the children. Imagining herself a Jane Eyre in the making, she prepares to take on a motherly role at her new home, despite her lack of experience with children and domestic matters.
Landry plays the distant uncle and the dim-witted, good-hearted Mrs. Grose with aplomb, but his best role is Miles, a boy with unnerving curiosity and wisdom. Even the way Landry towers over Schreiber emphasizes the power Miles has over his governess. In bits and pieces, she learns that the House of Bly has a dark history. The strange red-headed man she sees in a tower resembles the now-dead Peter Quint, illicit lover of Miss Jessel, the governess's predecessor. The governess then begins to see the ghost of Miss Jessel wandering the Bly grounds as well, and she fears that these two ghosts seek to harm the two children under her care.
READ: "A screwy turn: Interview with Ryan Landry and Molly Schreiber," by Maddy Myers
Like James, Hatcher leaves the reality of the ghosts up to the audience. Are Peter Quint and Miss Jessel plotting to possess the two young innocents? Or is their governess hallucinating and dragging her young charges into her mad delusion? Schreiber collapses the governess's seeming stability, transforming the woman into a grim shadow of her former self. At the end, Miles is cowering on the floor in fear of the woman she has become; guardians have betrayed him before, and will again.