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‘Turn of the Screw’ a terrifying treat at First Folio

Nick Sandys Melanie Keller star First Folio Theatre’s 'The Turn Screw.'

Nick Sandys and Melanie Keller star in First Folio Theatre’s "The Turn of the Screw."

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‘The Turn of the Screw’

♦ Through April 29

♦ First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W 31st St., Oak Brook

♦ Tickets, $26-$37

♦ (630) 986-8067;

Updated: April 10, 2012 9:44PM

Beware children bearing gifts of deadly nightshade. Or perhaps it isn’t the beautifully lethal plant after all, but just a harmless flower, transformed into something terrifying by the unhinged mind of a vulnerable governess.

The line between madness and imagination has never been as fine as will-o’-the-wisp, and so it is in Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Henry James’ spine-tingling “The Turn of the Screw.”

Directed with goose-bump-inducing impact by Alison Vesely and running through April 29 at First Folio Theatre, the piece is as thrilling as the sensation of hairs standing up on the back of your neck.

Much of the dark beauty of James’ novella lies in its tantalizing ambiguity. Is this a psychological horror story or a ghost story? Is the unnamed governess mad or are predatory phantoms luring her young charges to grotesque acts of debauchery? The questions are creepy, the answers elusive in this marvelously unnerving production.

With actors Nick Sandys and Melanie Keller, Vesely crafts a combination of good old-fashioned ghost story and psycho-sexual horror story with an emphasis (maybe) on the “psycho.” Think “The Exorcist” meets “The Bad Seed” meets Jane Eyre’s mad woman in the attic and you’ve got some small idea of just how deliciously disturbing things have gotten at First Folio.

The story is fairly straightforward. A young woman (Keller) accepts a post as a governess. Over the next seven days, she becomes convinced that the children in her charge are being stalked by demons. On the seventh day, all hell breaks loose (so to speak) as her fierce attempts to protect young Flora and Miles turn tragic.

As the governess, Keller is tremendously effective — this unnamed woman is wholly believable as a passionately maternal presence determined to keep her charges from harm no matter the cost. But she’s also credible as someone far more sinister — a young woman who twists reality to suit her craving for romance.

Sandys is also an exquisitely persuasive presence. Portraying everyone else in the story, including the seductive/repellent and wholly inaccessible master of the house, the doddering housekeeper, the child Miles and the fiends who may or may not be wreaking havoc on the isolated household, he makes the transformations so complete you’d be excused for lapsing into the belief that each role was being played by a different person.

It is also a testament to Sandys’ formidable powers as an actor that without speaking, he can portray one of the most monstrous and memorable entities we’ve seen on a stage. As the governess describes a phantom at the window, your blood runs cold with little more than his subtle twist of the lips, a slight narrowing of the eyes and a small, soulless smile that could only belong to the damned.

Vesely’s direction is finely tuned, starting “The Turn of the Screw” at a low simmer and gradually amplifying and intensifying things until its ghastly climax.

She’s helped in no small part by sound designer Christopher Kriz, who creates a sonic backdrop that’s as elusive and as effective as a half-remembered nightmare. Also adding to the ambiance is Michael McNamara’s lighting design, a marvel of dark shadows and encroaching twilight.

Whatever you conclude about “The Turn of the Screw,” there’s no denying the formidable power of First Folio’s staging.

Catey Sullivan is a local free-lance writer.

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