Nestled at the back and on the ground floor of the sprawling arts campus collectively known as the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh is the Kennedy Theater. This is a stage-less, approximately 100 seat theater that is in the midst of presenting a series called Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy. This third installment was Jeffrey Hatcher’s bare-bones adaptation of the 1898 Henry James novella and psychodrama, The Turn of the Screw.  More than a ghost story, James’ gothic tale of repressed sexuality and its potential psychological ramifications proved especially captivating to many during the burgeoning Freudian revolution.  

The story revolves around a young governess (can be thought of as today’s au pair) who travels to a lonely, isolated English manor known as Bly House to care for two recently orphaned children. The uncle of these charges hires an impressionable and innocent young woman and makes it quite clear that once this agreement is consummated he is not to be contacted again under any circumstances. Shortly after arrival she finds out from the housekeeper that the former governess, Miss Jessel, had drowned herself after being impregnated by Peter Quint, the sadistic handyman. Quint was then later found dead from an apparent suicide. The children, the young girl Flora and the older boy Miles, seem scarred by these events. Flora has not spoken a word since these deaths, and Miles exhibits behaviors that could make him the poster boy for an FBI profile of a future serial killer. The governess claims to see apparitions in the form of ghostly figures of the dead former employees of Bly House and the story evolves into an examination of the governess’ breakdown – or is it?

While there are as many as seven characters plus a narrator, this production uses only two flesh and blood actors, simply listed as The Man and The Woman. The “stage” is a nearly bare space except for some very simple furniture placed on an area rug. There is also a shortened staircase and a fireplace at the back of the stage. The Woman is played by Dana Marks, an actor, director and teacher based in Durham. She has the monumental task of conveying most of the narrative and also portraying the psychological breakdown of this character while retaining the “are the ghosts real” conundrum of the story. The Man, played by local actor, teacher and choreographer David McClutchey, is asked to play four very different parts: the narrator, the Uncle, the female housekeeper Mrs. Grose, and the 10 year old boy Miles. He does a very convincing job, sometimes switching characters in mid-sentence. He is quite convincing as the female housekeeper without resorting to the Monty Python-esque caricature of a man playing a British woman. Finest of all is his depiction of the withdrawn, very creepy young Miles and the sexual tension between the governess and this pre-pubescent boy.  

There are some lighting effects and some very soft and subtle music to add to the suspense, but this is mostly a vehicle for two superb actors and a provocative story that is very much dependent on involved listening by the audience. This is not a vehicle that permits the performance to passively wash over you – it does require some work and imagination, but that is the rewarding part. At its most basic this is an example of great storytelling without the bells and whistles of Theater. Marks, as the governess, weaves an intricate story and evokes conflicts and images out of the ether as if you were being read a great scary bedtime story. There are no answers, nor resolutions, but that’s what makes it so compelling. This is great theater distilled to its essence. Drop your 21st century computer and media gadgets for an evening and revel in the grandeur of a great story.

The Turn of the Screw continues through August 9. Please see our theatre calendar for details.