Playwright: adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, from the story by Henry James. At: Writers' Theatre at Books On Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave. in Glencoe. Phone: 847-242-6000; $40-$58. Runs through: March 30
When a woman announces during a job interview, 'I have always been a romantic at heart,' it's our first clue that there's going to be trouble, western literature all but exemplifying the propensity of such personalities for attracting crises. When we learn that her would-be employer is a bachelor intent on hiring a governess for his orphaned niece and nephew ( the latter on the brink of puberty ) , our anticipation grows. And when the site of her duties is revealed to be a remote country estate, we are assured that mischief awaits the parson's daughter whose covert consumption of novels, in addition to her Bible scripture, leads her to declare herself 'the heroine of this story'.
Dramatic interpretations of Henry James' neo-gothic yarn tend to agree with her. Haven't scholars commented on the crossover between this author's plots and his psychologist brother's studies? And don't audiences adore chillers involving hyper-intuitive virgins beset by terrifying apparitions tempting them to—gasp!—immodest behavior? Never mind that this spinster harbors Jane Eyre-inspired fantasies of marrying the boss. Our icon must be pure in heart, else how can the ghosts—in particular, that of the satanic paramour who seduced, then abandoned, the previous nanny—exert sufficient menace to spark outrage over their influence on the pre-adolescent innocents under her care?
But this Writers' Theatre production is not simply out to provide its audiences a cheap damsel-in-distress thrill. The absence of spooky technical effects mandated by its parlor-sized stage in the back room of a bookstore thwarts attempts to steer us toward any one subjective point-of-view, the portrayal of all personnel by only two actors further distancing us emotionally. Seen from this vantage, the homoerotic tone of the doubts spurring her young male charge to seek the attention and counsel of his uncle becomes manifest, as does the suspicion that this may not be our baby-sitter's first venture at exorcising demons.
Kymberly Mellen anchors the shivery action with just the right measure of delicate obsession under Jessica Thebus' direction, though the more active duties fall to LaShawn Banks, playing an array of characters ranging from the capable, but befuddled, housekeeper to the precocious boy undone by his own desires. After factoring in Jack Magaw's veil-and-shadow scenic design, the result is 90 minutes to engage crime-fiction and bodice-ripper fans alike.