Missing a few twists, `Turn of the Screw' still absorbing

CRITIC'S CORNER

Theater

September 22, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

Part of the pleasure of Henry James' ghostly mystery novel The Turn of the Screw is that the mystery persists after you close the book. Do the evil spirits who haunt the tale exist or are they merely imagined?

In the notes to his 1996 stage adaptation, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher advocates giving audiences "something to argue about on the way home," instead of favoring one interpretation.

Yet the script itself edges toward the imaginary-ghost theory. And, director Alex Willis' Fell's Point Corner Theatre production tips the balance even more. The show still has rewards, but James' sense of ambiguity isn't one of them.

Hatcher takes several large liberties with the source material, most significantly, reducing the cast size to two. One actor plays the lead role of the Governess; the second plays everybody else.

Without changing his black Victorian suit, Mark Scharf depicts characters ranging from a warm-hearted housekeeper (portrayed with a slight stoop and a bit of a brogue) to a little boy named Miles (portrayed with an eager voice and stiffly held arms).

Using only two actors isn't just economical casting. By having a single actor play everyone the Governess encounters, the play suggests she's seeing people who aren't there. It's an intriguing approach if handled subtly. But Janel Miley's performance is rarely subtle.

Initially, when the Governess is hired to tutor orphaned Miles and his sister, Miley displays a cheery demeanor. Then on her first night in their remote manor house, she spies a face in the window, and Miley's Governess becomes hysterical - a tone that builds as the play progresses. This is a Governess who not only seems mad, but whose behavior alone would scare most children.

But even if this Turn of the Screw is missing a few twists and turns, Fell's Point Corner's production is still theatrically inventive, absorbing storytelling.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 9. Tickets are $14. Call 410-276-7837.

A family at war

Soldiers missing in action, relatives clinging to hope, corporate cover-ups and war profiteering. All My Sons may be one of Arthur Miller's earlier plays (1947), but its themes are eerily prescient.

At the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, director Sherrionne Brown drives home the play's timeliness. What Brown and her cast cannot do is lessen the thick layer of melodrama.

The plot concerns the family of Joe Keller, whose contributions to World War II included sending his two sons to war. One came home; the other is missing in action. The Kellers' other contribution turned out to be tainted. Joe's business made aircraft parts, but defects led to the deaths of 21 pilots. Joe and his partner went to jail, although Joe was later exonerated. When the play begins, Joe's son, Chris, has brought home the girl he plans to marry. Not only is she his brother's former fiancee, she's also the daughter of Joe's partner, who's still in prison.

Steve Beall's portrayal of Joe is the heart of the Spotlighters' production. Beall plays this deeply flawed man as someone who has not just forgotten, but rewritten his past. As his stern wife, desperately hoping her MIA son is still alive, Maria Pechukas starts out as a deluded dreamer, then chillingly turns out to be the family's most calculating survivor. And, as idealistic, mild-mannered Chris, Warren Hemenway finds his footing when his character expresses moral outrage. Indeed, the depiction of this family's shifting dynamics gives heat and intensity to the production.

The set, a sunny backyard, is recognizable as the kind of place Norman Rockwell painted; by the time we reach the tragic ending, it's become a false front covering up deceit, warped values and avarice - and sadly, it's just as recognizable.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 8. Call 410-752-1225.

Playwrights Festival

Rosemary Frisino Toohey's Cornered was named best play and Run of the Mill Theater's staging of Toohey's Socks, directed by Kathleen Amshoff, was named best production at Monday's Baltimore Playwrights Festival awards ceremony at Center Stage. In addition, a lifetime achievement award was given to publicist Shirley Bell. Deadline for 2006 festival submissions is Sept. 30. For guidelines, visit balti moreplaywrightsfestival.org or call 410-276-2153.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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