You could be forgiven for thinking that a play about evil spirits possessing children in a Victorian-era manor doesn’t sound topical.
But issues of male-dominated spaces, sexual coercion and the lingering effects of deception are also at the forefront of director Bruce Jacklin’s recent production of The Innocents. These themes resonate in a country reeling from reports of sexual assault and misconduct at the highest levels of society.
Last Friday, in the high-ceilinged banquet room of The Alcove, a fine dining restaurant in downtown Mount Vernon, around 120 people gathered for a night of food and theater. Playwright William Archibald’s The Innocents is a theatrical adaptation of Henry James’ short story “The Turn of the Screw.” The play follows a governess, Miss Giddens, who is hired by a reclusive man to watch over his orphaned niece and nephew, Flora and Miles.
Miss Giddens realizes all is not well in the house when the cook, Mrs. Grose, lets slip that the previous governess was killed under mysterious circumstances. The play takes a supernatural turn when the specters of the governess and the manor’s former valet begin appearing to Miss Giddens. Over the course of the play, it becomes clear to the audience — and to Miss Giddens — that these specters have unfinished business in the home.
Miss Giddens is played by Courtney Decosky, who is also an administrative assistant in Kenyon’s Office of the President and who appears in the Netflix original show Mindhunter. In The Innocents, Decosky’s big-budget production experience shows. She provides compelling insight into the uncertain psychology of Miss Giddens, who is placed under extreme duress as the play progresses and the ghosts of the manor target her for special punishment. Decosky manages to mitigate a play that is sometimes overindulgently melodramatic (a crack of thunder scores one of the production’s more dramatic moments) and deftly interacts with the play’s two younger cast members (Flora and Miles are nine and ten, respectively).
Opposite the youthful Miss Giddens is the cook Mrs. Grose, who serves as the unwilling chronicler of the manor’s dark past. Played by Cate Blair Wilhelm, who has been acting in Mount Vernon and Columbus for 30 years, Mrs. Grose provided many of the production’s more blatant political commentary. Her description of the manor’s corrupted former valet could just as easily be applied to any number of public figures.
“He fancied himself master,” Mrs. Grose says of the valet. “He used his position here to do what he wanted.” Themes of patriarchal control, coercion and deception are woven throughout the production, but are heightened most prominently during the play’s climactic moments. Miss Giddens confesses to Mrs. Grose that “it is difficult — even as one woman to another — to tell you what I felt as he stared down at me” after the possessed Miles confronts her.
Jacklin did not at first realize the inadvertent cultural relevance of the The Innocents when he chose it for the Halloween-inspired dinner show. “I was listening to the cook tell Mrs. Giddens how afraid she was and how she had evidence of abuse, but she was too afraid to share and, lo and behold, these very same issues came up in the news,” Jacklin said. “It was accidental.”
Siblings Flora and Miles, orphaned and left with their perpetually absent uncle, are the conduits for the tragic and corrupting influence of the undead presences seen throughout the play. They are, as the titular “innocents” of the play, a highlight of the production. Flora, played by a local St. Vincent de Paul student, provided humorous interludes of song and lighthearted banner. Often this humor contrasted eerily with the dark charm of her brother, Miles, who channeled the presence of the evil valet. Miles, played by another local child, was an oddly compelling figure: a full three feet shorter than Decosky’s Mrs. Giddens, he managed to terrify patrons even at the back of the room with his ominous threats and incisive jabs. To hear threats with troublingly mature themes behind them issue from such a young actor was perhaps the most unnerving part of the production.
Reconciling the mature, and obliquely sexual, themes of the play with his younger cast members did not represent a challenge for Jacklin. At one point, the actor who portrays Miles, who is 10, asked him to explain how the valet had “corrupted” his character. “It’s on many levels that Quint is corrupting him,” Jacklin said, “but I just covered one aspect I thought [the actors of Miles and Flora] could grasp, and it was that lies and deception and manipulation corrupt people because they can easily become habits.”
The occasional melodrama of The Innocents never overshadowed its nuanced treatment of the problems that stem from suppressed sexual violence and hierarchies made toxic by coercion and deception. Its talented cast worked in tandem with a unique musical score and an ornate Victorian set design to provide a night of suspenseful entertainment.