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Wrong 'Turn'; Diary approach blunts suspense of James' classic

There is only one thing wrong with the Irish Classical production of "Turn of the Screw," the scary Henry James story about a British governess and her two mysterious young charges: it's not scary.

Moody, spooky and eerie? Yes. And vague, incomplete and elusive. But gripping, terrifying and haunting? Not quite.

What gets in the way, unfortunately, is the adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher. It has a weird (and wrong) grasp on what constitutes suspense. Typically, a successful ghost story -- "or chilling psychological thriller?" the show's promotions ask -- builds suspense by feeding us elusive treats, little kernels of information that aren't all that informative but tend to drag us by our worn knuckles in the right direction.

Who is following me, why is he so angry, what did I do to annoy him, and how can I get him to go away?

These questions don't really need answers, but they do need addressing in order to keep our attention. This goes for both the haunted house tales of the schoolyard to the most gripping Roman Polanski thriller or Wes Craven slasher film.

In Hatcher's adaptation, he gives all characters to two performers. The Man, played by Vincent O'Neill, covers three major roles, from an ominous uncle whose niece and nephew need looking after, to the butler and the bright young boy. The Woman, played by Carolyn Baeumler, is both the governess in real time and in her diary entries, which she reads back to us in narration.

It's in the writing of the Woman's part that we get steered off course most often. Just as something scary is about to happen to her, the governess breaks form and tells us, as written after-the-fact in her diary, what that something scary is. By the time the thing happens, we already know it was going to, even if we didn't know what it was.

Rest assured, it is not as confusing as that description. But it's close.

What this does is remove us from the governess's own discovery of her fate. We aren't nearly as afraid for her since she's telling us about it instead of showing us. In other ways, plot happens too vaguely. Characters enter previously absent evidence of backstories, leaving us to just trust them. None of it makes much sense, to be frank.

Fortunately, we're watching great actors who are fully committed to their roles. O'Neill handles his creepy old man and captivating young boy with equal fascination. His command is matched by Baeumler, who plays her governess perhaps too strongly, however capably. It's the rare case where an actor is too good for her part, too convicted and committed to play what ought to be a lost, frightened soul. (Consider Julia Roberts in "Mary Reilly," the 1996 film about Dr. Henry Jekyll's housemaid. Does anyone believe Roberts as a meek and silent servant?)

What does work, and incredibly well, is director Derek Campbell's staging. Campbell strips away the conventions of most ghost re-enactments -- creaky doors, cobwebs, dusty furniture -- and instead plays everything out on a handful of octagonal platforms. Simple stagecraft at its best. Brian Cavanagh's lighting design does a superb job at casting the right shadows, coloring the right moods and granting us the right curiosities.

It's too bad that with such great talent in every corner of the theater, their material doesn't give them much to work with. More often it's the other way around.

But this much is for certain, in both this ghost tale and its illogical adaptation: There is nothing quite as scary as the dark unknown.

***

"Turn of the Screw"    

2 stars (out of 4)    

WHEN: Through Nov. 13    

WHERE: Presented by the Irish Classical Theatre in the Andrews Theatre,     625 Main St.    

TICKETS: $34 to $42    

INFO: 853-4282, www.irishclassicaltheatre.com    

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