The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, which specializes in adapting classic literary works for the stage, will premiere its multimedia production of artistic director Derek Goldman’s adaptation of turn-of-the-century American author Henry James’ chilling and controversial 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, Jan. 20-Feb. 2 in Swain Hall Studio 6 on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. Goldman dazzled Triangle audiences a couple of years ago with a multimedia adaptation of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans.

“I have been interested in James’ The Turn of the Screw for several years,” Goldman says. “[It] was a tale that haunted me as an adolescent. I began to conceive of an adaptation when I was in Chicago in the late 1990s but only wrote it within the last year. I have always felt that it would lend itself incredibly well to a narrative theater staging, as it is one of the classic works of American literature, combining exquisite language, psychological realism, a critique of Victorian values, Gothic elements worthy of Poe, a potential for theatricality reminiscent of Hamlet, and a remarkably suspenseful story that provokes a seemingly endless array of conflicting interpretations.”

He adds, “It is a fabulously eloquent, taut narrative, really the ‘mother of all ghost stories.’ It manages with great efficiency to open up chilling questions of epic proportions — the nature of madness and of innocence, the relationship between appearances and reality and, implicitly, the power of storytellers/artists to shape and twist experience itself.

“Remarkably, even though the production clocks in at under 90 minutes, I did not have to leave out any significant characters, plot developments, etc.,” Goldman says. “James was also a dramatist, and there is so little wasted or redundant in his narrative that little compression was necessary (though I had to be somewhat selective with some of his more flowery passages since it is a first-person narrative — about just how much narrative we could handle from the character of the governess.) This role, as played by [Chicago actress and StreetSigns associate artist] Kate Fry, has been particularly rich to develop, as we confront decisions in an embodied way about her ‘reliability,’ the question of her madness and how to balance it with the intensity of her love for the children for whom she is caring.”

Goldman elaborates, “The Turn of the Screw tells the story of a governess (Kate Fry) who has been hired to raise and care for two orphaned children, Miles (11-year-old Charlie Harris of Raleigh) and his sister Flora (seven-year-old Shelby Finnie of Greensboro). Arriving at their estate at Bly, she makes the acquaintance of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose ([Atlanta Shakespeare Company founding artistic director and StreetSigns associate artist] Elisabeth Lewis Corley), a benevolent woman who, it becomes increasingly clear to the governess, is filled with repressed fears and unacknowledged secrets.

“While at Bly,” Goldman says, “the governess begins to see ghosts in the form of the children’s former caretakers, Peter Quint (StreetSigns associate artist Chris Chiron) and Miss Jessel (Meaghann Lynne), now deceased, who the governess feels have come for the children. Over time, she becomes convinced that the charming and seemingly angelic children are communing with the ghosts, and her efforts ‘to save them’ follow a tragic path.”

Crafting an edge-of-your-seat thriller from The Turn of the Screw presents a considerable challenge for director/playwright Derek Goldman and his creative team, which includes set designer Rob Hamilton, lighting designer Steve Dubay, costume designer Diana Waldier, sound designer Emily Hanford, and multimedia designer Mark Olson, who is responsible for creating ghostly apparitions.

Goldman describes the set as “shifting, floating pieces — interior furniture and exterior — evoking both the literal landscape of Bly and the ever-shifting landscape of [the governess’] mind.” He says the show’s lighting is “shadowy, [with] movement between interior and exterior — the mental and the pastoral” — and the production’s costumes are “period Victorian.”

Goldman claims, “[The Turn of the Screw] is one of the most controversial and widely interpreted works of literature ever written; it has been approached from literally dozens of critical standpoints — psychoanalytic, feminist, Marxist, as a scathing critique of Victorian mores, as a study of the dangers of repressed sexuality, as a tale of homosexual abuse, and much more. It has generated intense arguments over both grand overriding questions — such as ‘Are the ghosts real?’ and ‘Is the governess mad?’ and ‘Are the children corrupt?’ — as well as innumerable more-detailed questions of interpretation. The final moment alone has been the subject of literally volumes worth of disparate critical speculation.

“As a creative team,” Goldman says, “we were determined to try to be as faithful as possible to the text as written, even as we tried to make bold choices about how to theatricalize it. In other words, we wanted to use the stage to, as the text does itself, open the story out for its myriad diverse interpretations. One could have developed a staging with the firm conviction that the ghosts are real, or that the governess is purely mad, but we hoped to develop a staging that maintains some of the gray areas of the text without backing away from its terror.”

He adds, “The ghosts in the production appear both as filmed projections and in the flesh, heightening the question of how real they are. The scenic landscape we have constructed is meant both to evoke Bly, the Victorian estate at which the action takes place, and the landscape of the governess’ mind, so scenic elements are often floating and insubstantial.

“We wanted above all to trust James’ language,” Goldman says, “and the brilliant game he plays in this text with ‘point-of-view’ in his complex characterization of the governess. By making us alternately love her and loathe her, trust her and fear her, James creates a work that increasingly seems to be about the nature of narrative itself (as emphasized by the framing device… which positions the telling of the story years later around the fire, enacted in our staging by ‘the Host’ [Triangle theater veteran and StreetSigns associate artist Jordan Smith]).”

The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, in partnership with the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Communication Studies, presents The Turn of the Screw Monday-Saturday, Jan. 20-26, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 27, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 29-Feb. 1, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 2, at 2 p.m. in Swain Hall Studio 6 Theatre on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. $14 Friday and Saturday and $12 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, except pay-what-you-can preview Jan. 20. 919/843-3865 (student rush, senior citizen’s discounts, and group rates available).