Co-stars enhance Ensemble’s eerie ‘Turn of the Screw’

Literally, the biggest drawback to the latest Georgia Ensemble Theatre production is probably the cavernous Roswell Cultural Arts Center venue itself, where the company has been presenting its shows for nearly 30 years now. Artistic director James Donadio’s intimate interpretation of the 1898 Henry James thriller “The Turn of the Screw” unfolds on a comparatively small scale, on a pared down set (designed by Jamie Bullins) that essentially consists of a solitary wooden staircase, one separate platform, a single hanging window frame, and a lone chair.

As adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher, the play entrusts just two actors to perform all of the characters in the classic ghost story. And, to Donadio’s further credit, that means local audiences have a chance to relish a pair of Atlanta’s most versatile talents taking full advantage of the situation: Christina Leidel, late of Actor’s Express’ punk-rock musical “Lizzie,” who also starred earlier this year in the Ensemble’s comedy of manners “Vanity Fair”; and Daniel Thomas May, making a welcome and long overdue theatrical comeback of sorts.

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

A certified toast of the town during much of the 2000s, May played everything from Hamlet to Stanley Kowalski — here and there, even throwing in a “Cotton Patch Gospel” for good measure. By the 2010s, he was landing recurring roles on such TV series as “The Walking Dead,” “Being Mary Jane” and “Nashville,” and he has continued to maintain a successful career as a narrator of audio books, as well. His only stage appearances in all that time were parts in Synchronicity’s 2015 remount of “The Vibrator Play,” and the Alliance’s “Crossing Delancey” in 2017.

The center of attention in “The Turn of the Screw” is definitely Leidel as the seemingly sensible governess who’s gradually haunted and undone by her new surroundings at an isolated English estate, where evil spirits might lurk. But it’s logical to presume that May’s assignment would be flashier, at least initially, because he gets to act out everybody else, and, in each case, does so quite persuasively.

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

In addition to the dashing but detached uncle who hires the woman to look after his discarded nephew and niece, May also portrays the skittish old housekeeper of the manor, and the mercurial teenaged nephew, recently expelled from boarding school under ominous circumstances. (Although, for some reason, Hatcher never establishes the young niece as an actual presence in his rendition of the story, no doubt May could have pulled off that role, too.)

Leidel’s singular performance, meanwhile, is a pure privilege to behold. She worked similar wonders transitioning between the many ups and downs of the Thackeray (anti)heroine Becky Sharp in “Vanity Fair.” Through her character in “Turn of the Screw,” she skillfully reveals a range of emotional intensity that’s even more amazing — going from a prim and proper “romantic at heart” in the opening scenes, willing to sacrifice of herself for the good of the children, to becoming unhinged and deranged by the end, convinced that those little “demonic horrors” drove their previous governess to suicide.

With a chillingly effective touch, director Donadio reflects her psychological unraveling by having the character physically undress over the course of the drama’s 90-plus minutes. It begins with her removing her jacket or vest in one scene, unfastening the top button of her blouse or letting down her hair in another, then taking off her shoes or her skirt, until finally she’s left only in an undergarment as her nightgown for the climactic conclusion. (Contributing the moody lighting and suspenseful sound designs are Elisabeth Cooper and Winston Johnson.)

The Georgia Ensemble show makes for a suitably unsettling chamber piece. The only real problem is that it often feels slightly misplaced and swallowed up playing out in such a disproportionate space.


THEATER REVIEW

“The Turn of the Screw”

Through Nov. 13. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. $39-$58. Roswell Cultural Arts Center, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260, www.get.org.

Bottom line: Vividly performed and seductively unsettling.