The advent of electricity burned off the dark corners, the shadowy objects, and the possibility of murky mysteries. So for this production of The Turn of the Screw, adapted from the Henry James story by Jeffrey Hatcher, director Marc Silberschatz decided to eliminate that pesky invention of rationality and throw us all back to the reality of the story's setting in 1872 — sans electric lights.
It's a drastic approach that negates the usual conceits of theatre productions: Sets, props, and costumes become irrelevant. The decision to stage the play in near-total darkness elevates the writing and the vocal interpretations of the two actors, who are lit only by the candles they hold.
Erin Cunningham plays the young woman employed as the governess of two children who she soon believes are haunted by specters. Tim Scott embodies all the other characters: the children, Miles and Flora; the children's uncle; the cook; the narrator; and a series of squeaks and moans. A seductive intimacy emerges from the darkness as Scott and Cunningham interact closely and hold their candles near their faces to be illuminated. The darkness also further wraps the audience in the action: We viscerally sense the seduction the governess experiences as she slips further and further into the dark reaches of her mind.
It's unfortunate that the candles the actors use are battery-powered instead of authentic, which would further evoke the eerie quality of the darkness. There's also only so much you can do with dim illumination. Despite the valiant efforts to change the pace and add new elements — especially by Scott, who demonstrates an incredible versatility in his many roles — sitting in the dark can easily become a sleepy, rather than creepy, venture.
Presented by Twenty Feet Productions at the Red Room, 85 E. Fourth St., NYC. Oct. 27-Nov. 12. Thu.-Sun., 8 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.