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Civic shows its scary side

Laticia Widman, left, and Doug Dawson star in Spokane Civic Theatre’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” (Jesse Tinsley)
Laticia Widman, left, and Doug Dawson star in Spokane Civic Theatre’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” (Jesse Tinsley)

Latest production drawn from famous ghost story

Henry James’ 1898 novella, “The Turn of the Screw,” is one of literature’s most famous ghost stories – assuming that it actually has ghosts.

Several questions have vexed readers for more than a century: Do these “ghosts” exist only in a disturbed young governess’s head? Or do they represent an even more frightening form of evil?

Just in time for Halloween, the Spokane Civic Theatre’s Firth Chew Studio Theatre is mounting Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-person stage adaptation of this psychological thriller.

As local audiences discovered when Interplayers produced it in 2003, it relies on the scariest elements any writer can conjure: the audience’s own imaginations.

Director Susan Hardie said that the overall goal is “imaginative creepiness,” conveyed with two bodies, a basic set and a lot of lighting effects.

Hatcher’s adaptation sticks fairly close to the story that James told so chillingly in 1898: A young governess arrives at a lonely English country estate to care for two children. Then she begins to see the former housekeeper and valet skulking about the place. The problem is, they’re dead.

Hatcher’s version ratchets up the eeriness in several ways:

• It features only two actors. Laticia Widman will play the governess and Doug Dawson plays every other role, including the narrator, the uncle, the housekeeper and the little boy. He does it all without benefit of costume changes.

• Dawson is also responsible for creating all of the eerie sound effects: the wind whooshing around the estate, the click of deadbolts and the pounding of footfalls.

• The little girl in the story remains both unseen and (in a departure from James) mute.

“That helps underscore the trauma the child has been through,” said Hardie.

There are other characters that remain unseen as well: The ghosts. That fits perfectly well with James’ original intentions. The story’s ambiguity is one source of its power.

Hardie said she wanted the audience to leave “with a lot of questions,” and plenty of fodder for post-play conversation.