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Turn of the Screw at Prime Stage 

A Henry James adaptation might have pared too much.

George Saulnier and Lissa Brennan in Prime Stage's Turn of the Screw.

Photo courtesy of Prime Stage.

George Saulnier and Lissa Brennan in Prime Stage's Turn of the Screw.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has repeatedly proven himself a master at adaptation as well as for his original works, but perhaps he pared too far with Henry James' classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. Prime Stage Theatre Co.'s production of Hatcher's 1999 play, directed by Joe Warik, runs well and rapidly, but with unintended humor and not a whit of horror.

Turn of the Screw (I don't know why or where the "The" went) condenses an already sparse dramatis personae to a cast of two. Lissa Brennan portrays James' nameless Governess, with George Saulnier as everybody else: man, woman and child. The latter casting is a bit of a stretch, and sometimes a strain. The audience is too busy suspending belief that the somewhat portly though natty Saulnier is a pretty 10-year-old boy and a wizened housekeeper, et al., to suspend their nonbelief in ghosts.

For those who missed it in junior high, The Turn of the Screw is about a young woman in her first post as governess at the appropriately appointed country manor house, which seems to be haunted. Her battle for the souls of the two children in her charge has inspired dozens of interpretations and adaptations of James' sexually charged ambiguities.

Though not quite the dewy-eyed Jane Eyre wannabe that James wrote, Brennan tackles the central role with strength and sincerity. It's quite a formidable load on her shoulders, running after ghosts and charging through the narrative without a hint of hysteria. The versatile Saulnier deftly handles some of the multi-casting, but the playwright has demanded the impossible.

The production looks wonderfully mid-Victorian (the actual story is set in 1872), all maroon and morose. Director Warik has a fine design/tech team: Johnmichael Bohach, set and props; Angela Baughman, sound; J.R. Shaw, lighting; Lindsay Tejan, costumes; George DeShetler, production manager; Jesse Poole-Van Swol, technical director; Caitlin Skaff, stage manager; and Andrea Carriker, assistant.

Though active and engrossing, Turn of the Screw is more true to the words than to the spirits of Henry James.

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