Theater Review: Misery adapted by William Goldman from Stephen King’s novel
Reviewed by Dennis Wemm
For his story The Final Problem, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his most popular character, Sherlock Holmes. Ten years later he brought him back to life. Why? His fans and publisher pressured him to by writing letters, circulating petitions, and generally making pests of themselves.
For his new romance novel, Misery’s Child, the fictional Paul Sheldon (Michael Slattery) has killed off his most popular character, Misery. He has no intention of bringing her back to life.
Within weeks after publication of the story, his number 1 fan (Margot Moser as Annie Wilkes) will save his life and pressure him to bring Misery back. But unlike Sherlock’s fans, she’s only one nurse with low self-esteem, sociopathy, a lonely house in the Rockies, and…well…she doesn’t write letters and sign petitions. Her methods are a lot more direct. Will she win in her fight to resurrect Misery?
The final production of Fredericksburg Theatre Ensemble’s season hews close to the spirit of the novel. Goldman’s script is spare. It is made up of a number of different short scenes that patch together events in the same way that Paul experiences them.
He’s an ordinary guy who is making a break with his old life and writing The Great Modern Novel. He’s trying to find himself, you see. Finishing his Modern Novel, he drives off from a mountain hotel where he always finishes them, and crashes his car near where Annie lives.
She rescues him, sedates him, and sets his broken lower legs and fractured arm. She hovers over him because the same snowstorm that crashed Paul’s Mustang closed off her house from the outside world.
And she really, really likes Misery. Paul’s secret, that he has killed Misery off, becomes the inciting incident in her descent into madness. In the words of the director, Melissa Hennessey, “reality clashing with her fantasies propels her into a spiral of depression that proves that maybe you really shouldn’t meet your heroes.”
So, essentially for over two hours they play a cat and mouse game to bring Misery to life. The dynamics of this unlikely couple are full of melodramatic twists. Will Paul’s tiny rebellions and attempts at breaking free succeed? Will Annie finally succumb to the need to refine Paul’s new manuscript into her ideal Misery book?
Over two hours and two actors having 95% of the scenes! Do they do it? Yes. How? By Annie truthfully, honestly, and moment by moment kicking Paul’s figurative butt to carry out the next step in her plan. By Paul truthfully, honestly, and moment by moment doing his best to break free, resist, protest, whine, bellow, and plot to get out of her plan when Annie holds every card in her hand. It’s a chess match with their ultimate opponent with survival on the line.
There are some issues: Goldman builds his scenes telegraphically, short scenes, short message, and quick cuts to the next. His play resists realistic staging because of this mercurial jumping. But the play’s language doesn’t stop to explain why a character is doing something and requires a costume or set change do that. On Broadway, the hydraulics and electric motors would move the set, breakaway costumes would change in split seconds.
Here, we have a dedicated stage crew running through well-rehearsed changes in tiny dark places in full view of the audience. We need to “hold that thought” from the end of the previous scene. It’s a race to keep our focus and momentum and memory engaged until the story gets fully, visually told.
I feel that we need to mention other elements that add to this successful performance, most of which add up to an honesty that is refreshing. Pedro Echeverria’s performance as Sheriff Buster solves the mystery of Paul’s disappearance just in time and too late at the same time.
The sound effects are timed perfectly and support the show with appropriately ironic tunes and stings. The lighting is the most effective I’ve seen used in the shared 810 Caroline theatre space. Lovely detailing in the scene painting, properties that are spot on, a very cute crossover solution that plays perfectly to the cat and mouse timing of a scene. Stage violence, done well, shouldn’t hurt anyone. This violence is choreographed to a T and all works very well indeed.
As the play starts you are warned of a whole lot of triggers. I would take the warnings about staged violence, false blood, recorded gunshots, and the presence of safe firearms seriously. Very strong language is used frequently. The very similar movie version was rated R. Think twice about bringing young children to the play.
However, if you are not a young child and like a good, serious, psychological thriller, performances are at 8 PM on October 20, 21, 27 and 28; and at 6 PM on October 22 and 29. You should go.