BENNINGTON — Oldcastle Theatre Company continues its 49th season with a truncated run of Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-hander, “The Turn of the Screw.”
If the name sounds familiar to audiences, it should, with Hatcher’s popular play based on the horror novella by Henry James (1843-1916), whose 12-part serialization in Collier’s Weekly reverberated throughout the literary world in 1898.
The story has since gone on to become a staple in literature classes globally, having also been translated into many languages, and has been adapted for stage, film and television.
The production will be directed by actor Jillian Armenante, an Oldcastle newcomer, who is known for her many TV and film credits, including her well-known role as Diane Kozlowski on the TV series “Judging Amy.”
As it were, an old friend now living in Vermont drew Armenante to direct the final show of Oldcastle’s season. The actor emphasized how grateful she was to “thrill and excite a whole new audience,” with this show.
“Years before I was an actress living in Los Angeles, I did a decade of theatre in Seattle, where I overlapped with the incomparable Jennifer Jasper, now the executive director of Bennington Performing Arts Center,” Armenante said. “Just before the world shut down I got a message from Ms. Jasper asking me if I would consider directing the last play in the summer season.”
Armenante said she “jumped at the opportunity to come to beautiful Bennington to be able to story-tell in my artistic home, the theater.”
The play tells the story of a Victorian-era governess, played by Rebecca Mozo, who is hired to care for two orphaned children. After learning of the deaths of her predecessor and the former groundskeeper, the governess is haunted by the images of their ghosts. Every other character appearing on stage (and there are many) will be played by local favorite Oliver Wadsworth.
The twist to the show is much like in James’ story: Hatcher’s version puts the onus on the audience to decide if the ghosts are real, or merely figments of the imagination. Not only does the play examine the power of human creativity, but its design and composition require audience members to dig deep into their own imaginings in fascinating and inventive ways.
Wadsworth, a North Bennington resident, noted with delight that he hadn’t seen Armenante since they were in graduate school in New York 30 years ago, and was looking forward to renewing their past friendship and synergy.
“We palled around and drank green beers at McSorley’s in the East Village,” Wadsworth said. “We seem to have watched almost all the same movies, so we have a shorthand in rehearsal for referencing favorites like ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Gone With the Wind.’”
Wadsworth also laughed and nodded expressively when asked about his well-known talent of playing many different characters in the same play.
“My thing has always been to play multiple roles,” Wadsworth said. “I really love it, because it allows me to represent different points of view. In this play, I get to be a 10-year-old boy who is the ultimate bad seed and a sweet, doddering British housekeeper straight out of ‘Downton Abbey,’ among others. What’s not to love about that?”
Wadsworth said he was thrilled to be working with Mozo, calling her “beautiful, funny, great company and a killer governess,” with that character being “one of the all-time great heroine-villainesses in literature.”
“Rebecca is powerful and scary in the role,” Wadsworth said.
Ultimately, Hatcher’s version of James’ class tale is meant to entertain and endure, the local actor explained.
“I want to be a fly on the upholstery for the discussions between audience members about what actually happened as they drive home from the theater,” he said.
Director Armenante agreed with Wadsworth, emphasizing that “The Turn of the Screw,” a timeless piece of literature, “investigates the thin line between reality and the imagination.”
“Classic stories have universal value which resonates and stands the test of time,” Armenante said. “I am hoping the audience walks away with the need to discuss at great length the different perspectives of what they think occurred in the story long after they have left the theater.
“The Turn of the Screw” by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the story by Henry James and directed by Jillian Armenante, will run from Sep. 3 to 12 at the Bennington Performing Arts Center – The Home of Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington. Indoor pod seating and masks required. Tickets: call the box office at 802-447-05654 or visit oldcastletheatre.org/tickets.