Subtext aside, Hatcher appears to have little sense of how to build a story of psychological terror onstage. (If you think the novella's stream-of-consciousness technique curtails the story's dramatic possibilities, let me give you a nudge in the direction of The Innocents, the 1961 movie based on The Turn of the Screw, which is downright chilling.) One way not to do it is to telescope several months of action into a mere week. Another is to ignore James's genius for artful evasion of the obvious.

In the book, for instance, James employed a handful of literary tricks -- sleights of hand that engage our minds as well as our emotions -- to avoid explicitly articulating the story's underlying meanings. The most deft of these was his decision to narrate the story from the point of view of a character twice removed from the action, a man who met the governess some years after the events had occurred and who recounts the story from her letters.

As readers, our imaginations can fill in what James intentionally left out. But as viewers we need more information in order to draw conclusions about what is really going on. Is the governess someone whose perceptions we can trust? Do the ghosts exist in her mind or in the dark shadows of the mansion? And given a choice between ghosts in the head or ghosts in the hallway, which is truly scarier? Rather than subtly guiding us, however, Hatcher's adaptation grabs hold of the story's psychosexual motifs and shoves them in our face.

What he doesn't put before us is the variety of clues that James provides about the governess's state of mind. Yes, she is alone in a strange house in which two people have recently died, and certainly her feelings for her employer include elements of romance and sexual desire. As written by James, however, The Turn of the Screw is something more complex and emotionally compelling than a melodrama or a mere ghost story. The book is a close reading of one person's troubled psyche, with profound implications for the rest of us.

While the thoughtful New Theatre production has considerable power to hold a spell over us, in the end the play reduces a masterpiece to something much smaller and less consequential than it ought to be.

The Turn of the Screw.
By Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novella by Henry James. Directed by Rafael de Acha. With Heath Kelts and Lisa Morgan. Through November 15. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave, Coral Gables; 305-443-5909.

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