Is the governess being haunted by ghosts, or are there bats in her belfry? That essential conundrum at the heart of Henry James' 1898 novella comes into stark play in Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation, now in a sturdy and suitably atmospheric staging with First Folio. (The company, admittedly, starts with a home-field advantage by using the loaded-with-gothic-shadows Peabody estate.)
Hatcher takes plenty of liberties with the original. But by splitting the roles between two actors, he also provides a cunning narrative hook for the audience. It's the governess onstage against the actor who plays everyone else, making us wonder whether she's the plucky heir to Jane Eyre she imagines herself to be, or if everything we hear is from a crazy woman.
Melanie Keller plays "The woman," a young parson's daughter whose first assignment as governess finds her caring for orphaned Flora and Miles at Bly, a lonely estate owned by their guardian uncle, who makes it clear that he's washed his hands of them once the checks are written. (In Hatcher's version, unlike the original, little Flora is mute and her brother is dyslexic — and the story unfolds in six fraught days, rather than the more leisurely span of weeks allotted by James.)
Miles has been sent home from boarding school after performing some "corrupt" deeds — and the governess, inflamed by information provided by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, begins to believe that the ghosts of the last governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover, Peter Quint, have come back to claim the children whom they allegedly perverted in life with their unnatural acts.
This is exactly the sort of setup that can shade into unintentional camp, but Alison C. Vesely's staging contains just enough sly digs to make it work, most of the time. It helps immeasurably that First Folio regulars Keller and Nick Sandys are in terrific synch. Sandys swiftly transforms from the seductive uncle to Mrs. Grose to Miles to the wheezing old gent whose memories of hearing the tale from the governess frame the action — and unlike the actors in Charles Ludlam's goofy "The Mystery of Irma Vep," Sandys transforms with nary a costume change. It's also a happy coincidence that the two actors both sport vibrant auburn hair — just like the ghosts.
There aren't as many genuine jolts of terror here as one finds in "The Woman in Black" (another popular two-actor ghost tale that First Folio served up a year ago). And the many nuances of James' original text inevitably get lost in Hatcher's version, which occasionally feels like a Freudian potboiler instead of a carefully sculpted psychological thriller.
But First Folio's staging finds a wonderful seam of sharp sardonic wit underneath the thinly veiled hysteria.
When: Through April 29
Where: First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook
Running time: 90 minutes
Tickets: $30-$37 at 630-986-8067 or firstfolio.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun