When it comes to tales about sweet-faced children able to commune with ghosts, few are more chilling than Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. But that's not all James' gothic ghost story and Kubrick's classic film have in common. Both follow freshly hired employees into isolated, haunted estates. Both of these characters soon learn their predecessors met unsavory ends. And both tales draw much of their eerie power from ambiguity—unreliable narrators, unexplained histories, improbable floor plans.
So blending James' story and Kubrick's film, as the Reformers do in an original adaptation called The Turn, would seem to make good sense. But while The Turn offers up some amusements, including a talking doll and a few all-too-brief forays into camp, the barrage of cinematic and literary references makes it more successful as a giddy clever-fest than as a fully realized piece of theater. Director Charmian Creagle and writer Sean Doran have definitely latched onto something intriguing, but in embracing neither all-out absurdity nor the sinister psychology of their source material—say, the disturbing sexual undercurrents of The Turn of the Screw, or the hallucinatory puzzles of The Shining—this is more of a first draft than a finished product.
The show is staged in a low-slung living room in the Buckman neighborhood (the Reformers' last production, an immersive zombie caper, was held in the adjoining garage). The influence of the Overlook Hotel looms large: The distinctive carpet pattern pops up in framed wall art, and the hedge maze has been painted on a coffee table. As the play begins, it's 1977 and Jackie (Tai Sammons) has just accepted a position as a governess for Danielle (or Danny...geddit?), a pretty and precocious girl who refuses to be separated from her doll Flora. (In The Turn of the Screw, the children are named Miles and Flora.) At first, Jackie believes the only other inhabitant at the estate is Ms. Grose (Paige Johnson Jones), a gleefully daffy housekeeper with garish blue makeup on one eye and a patch on the other.
But it's not long before the ghosts appear. They are Kate Jessel (Amanda Boekelheide) and Peter Quint (Doran), former employees who carried on an illicit relationship. Unfortunately, they're not all that frightening—Doran's first appearance at a window, bug-eyed and ashen-faced, is more giggle-inducing than heart-stopping. Fair enough: Creating suspense onstage is a tall order, and The Turn thankfully avoids cheap jump scares. But as Boekelheide and Doran claw at the walls and slink behind audience members with dramatic arm flourishes, they feel like refugees from a cut-rate haunted house. That would be entertaining enough if The Turn more fully welcomed camp—there is one such scene, too good to spoil here—instead of playing it straight.
As the play progresses, Jackie hounds Ms. Grose for answers about the ghosts and clacks away at the typewriter—like Jack Torrance, she's also working on a book. But as her character spirals into madness, Sammons lurches from homage to imitation, with slack-jawed, glassy-eyed expressions yanked straight from Jack Nicholson's iconic performance. The real star here is 11-year-old Agatha Olson as Danielle. Olson, with her piercing blue eyes, pale skin and lacy white dress, is already pretty unearthly-looking. Whether quietly singing to herself or having a convulsive tantrum—sometimes inches away from the audience—she brings an uncanny composure to her role. On this stage, it seems, creepiness is child's play.