Innocents lost

Blue Room’s latest welcomes the season with a chill

HOLD ME<br>Alice Wiley Pickett and Joe Hilsee as two of the five characters they play in <i>Turn of the Screw.</i>

Alice Wiley Pickett and Joe Hilsee as two of the five characters they play in Turn of the Screw.

Photo By Tom Angel

The lights are snuffed. The air is cold, as if piped in from a basement below. Then, the glowing circle of a single stage light reveals the calm, sinister visage of a Victorian-era gentleman. His eyes slowly sweep across the audience. Breaths are held.

Suddenly, in a quick and powerful manner, he speaks: of a tale of the innocent and the damned. And the involvement of two small children, our narrator explains, lends the account a certain “turn of the screw"—a twist, perhaps. Or, in the repressed, frustrated grip peculiar to that time period, something much more.

In the Blue Room production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Henry James’s chilling yarn, we are treated to a ghost story that disturbs, confuses and at times repels. Characters offer and accept strange proposals with a matrimonial eagerness. Children recite clever riddles and socialize with dead lovers. The line between pure and corrupt is masterfully blurred.

Joe Hilsee, in a tightly buttoned black coat and trousers suggestive of restricted men’s clubs in 1800’s London, delivers a performance that is as controlled as it is unsettling. As one of only two actors in this staging of a play involving five characters, Hilsee expertly morphs from narrator, to aloof uncle, to child of 10, to female housekeeper without benefit of props or change of clothing. The force and tone of his voice at one moment projects the powerful self-assuredness of a mid-life man, then wavers to elicit the pseudo-assuredness of a pre-teen male.

Alice Wiley Pickett, as the idealistic and eager governess, uses her wonderfully expressive face and hands, highlighted by the spare stage lighting, to express the increasing intensity of her character’s psychological transformation. Picket holds the audience in suspenseful grip as her character grapples with forces that will either glorify her in an ascent to heroism or lead her in a descent into emotional collapse.

With many good ghost stories, much of the gratification is in following the story’s many threads to one decided climax. However, be forewarned—you won’t find this package so neatly wrapped. Be prepared to spend several intriguing hours debating the ending with your fellow attendees.