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Photograph by Dave Lepori
GOOD HELP IS HARD TO FIND:ChloŽ Bronzan wants to rethink her new job as a nanny in 'The Turn of the Screw.'

Demon Doings

San Jose Stage Company chills the blood with Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw'

By Mike Connor

COLD, UNFORGIVING weather is settling into valley nights for the winter, doing for the San Jose Stage Company's production of The Turn of the Screw what the economic crisis is doing for Barack Obama's campaign. Nothing unlocks the corridors of terror in the mind as much as cold, dark weather, and The Turn of the Screw, originally a short novel written in serial form by Henry James in 1898, is a story aimed squarely between the eyes of its audience. Designed as something of a Rorschach ink blot of evil, The Turn of the Screw continues to inspire debate about the source of its evil in a disturbing tale of perfidy, ghosts and madness.

The tale is simple enough. A rich bachelor in London hires a governess to care for his niece and nephew, whose parents have died. Her charge is to look after the children in a mansion in the English countryside, along with the help of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Upon instruction from the uncle, the governess is not to contact him under any circumstances. Soon she discovers the ghastly fate of the former governess, and a few things not quite right with the children, as well as an apparition or two hanging around the mansion. Rather than pack her bags and head for home, she makes the crazy decision to stay and confront whatever demons, imagined or otherwise, might be lurking in the dark.

The novella was adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher as a play for just two actors. In San Jose Stage Company's production, this trick is pulled off admirably by Michael C. Storm, who plays the uncle, Mrs. Grose and Miles, the 10-year-old boy; and ChloŽ Bronzan, who plays the preternaturally naive governess and pantomimes interactions with the children and the ghosts. Storm is particularly versatile: without a single costume change, he is charming and seductive as the bachelor uncle; he's both sweet and creepy as the hunched and nasally Mrs. Grose; and as Miles, he's childish and remote yet oddly knowing, unsure in the chin and pigeon-toed with an unsettling stare.

Set mostly in a mansion in the Essex countryside, The Turn of the Screw is a gothic story, relying heavily on the character of the house itself—beautiful and grand at first sight but increasingly isolated and mysterious as the story progresses. The set is traditionally simple, and the Stage Company's production is no different, using only a few stone steps and an interior staircase leading to a raised platform and then a sheer black curtain veiling distant foliage to represent the entire mansion, the garden and the surrounding grounds. The sense of space is deftly conveyed by Bronzan when she stares out at the distant bell tower or calls desperately for the children through a rising storm, giving the sense of increasingly desperate isolation that plays tricks on people's minds.

The story remains vital in large part because of its ambiguous ending, which is fun to argue about on the drive home. The ending of this version ditches that ambiguity in favor of a more traditional twist (or "turn," as it were), but it's every bit as disturbing.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW, a San Jose Stage Company production, plays Wednesday–Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through November 2 at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $28–$45. (408.283.7142)

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