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Columnist
'Is she or isn't she?' That is the question
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 11/30/2007 12:46 AM

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Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw."

The psychosexual undertones of James' 1898 novella about a governess who believes demonic forces have enthralled her young charges would have intrigued the father of psychoanalysis.

Fans of the psychological thriller will be enthralled by Jessica Thebus' gripping, evocative revival of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's taut adaptation of the famous ghost story.

Distinguished by its ambiguity and the unreliability of its narrator/protagonist, "The Turn of the Screw" is a chilling tale about sexual awakening and the corruption of innocence.

The Writers' Theatre production, which opened Wednesday at Books on Vernon (an intimate stage tucked into the back of the bookstore), works on every level.

Artfully staged by Thebus, the show stars Kymberly Mellen as a lonely governess and LaShawn Banks as the London bachelor who hires her, the kindly housekeeper who indulges her and the young boy who provokes her.

Mellen and Banks are flawless. In a minimalist play, heavy on exposition with a two-person cast, they deliver. Jack Magaw's austere set with its mirror backdrop and lacy, midnight blue curtains; J.R. Lederle's muted lighting and Andre Pluess' subtle soundscape also deserve mention. Together, they make a suitable setting for this gothic tale.

The charming, vulnerable Mellen plays the unnamed governess, an impressionable young woman who fancies herself another Jane Eyre. Following an interview with a debonair London bachelor (the wonderfully versatile Banks) that plays as a seduction and fuels her romantic fantasies, she accepts a position tutoring the man's orphaned niece and nephew at his remote country estate.

There she encounters dependable housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Banks), the mute Flora (invisible to the audience) and her enigmatic older brother Miles (also played by Banks). Soon the ghosts of her predecessor Miss Jessel and her lover, Peter Quint, start appearing to the governess. Believing they intend to harm the children, she becomes increasingly aggressive in her attempts to protect her charges. Therein lies the conundrum. Have ghosts targeted the children? Or are they a figment of an unstable woman's imagination? Only James knew for sure, and he never said.

But that which James merely suggested in his tour-de force, playwright Hatcher and director Thebus confirm. Reading the story, we wonder: "is she or isn't she?" Watching the play, we know.

"The Turn of the Screw"

3 1/2 stars

out of four

Location: Writers' Theatre (at Books on Vernon), 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe

Times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 6 p.m. Sundays through March 30

Running Time: About 90 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $45-$58

Parking: Street parking available

Box office: (847) 242-6000 or www.writerstheatre.org

Rating: For teens and older