Review: Misery at Theatre Charlotte
Fame can be unsettling, painful. It can be dangerous, corrupting, or toxic. But it was Stephen King who had the marvelous idea, with Misery, that fame could also be a gripping horror story – and in case anybody had forgotten, immensely lucrative. The 1990 film, adapted for the screen by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner, snagged a few awards for lead actress Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, bestselling author Paul Sheldon’s #1 fan. Goldman also crafted the 2012 stage adaptation that opened on Broadway in late 2015, starring Laurie Metcalf opposite Bruce Willis.
That’s the version playing now at Theatre Charlotte. Metrolina has seen previous incarnations of Misery, by Rock Hill Community and Off-Tryon Theatre, but those adaptations were by British screenwriter Simon Moore. So this Willis-Metcalf vehicle, directed by former Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law, qualifies as a local premiere.
The main attraction of the Moore version, retained by Goldman, is that it turned the restrictions of a live stage presentation to our advantage, stripping away the outside world almost entirely and making the story more claustrophobic – no pig, no media, no fretful literary agent, and just one law enforcement agent. It’s very much like a first-person narrative by an immobilized writer who wakes up unexpectedly inside a torture chamber.
Chris Timmons builds a silhouetted two-story set that meshes well with his drab, gloomy, lightning-streaked lighting design, while Christy Edney Lancaster layers on plenty of thunderclaps in her sound design along with pop song recordings that sound like they originated on 78 rpm shellac (quite possibly the same Liberace cuts heard in the movie). It’s very creepy at the old Queens Road barn when lights dim out and our attention becomes centered on the light shining from Annie’s upstairs bedroom, framed by lightning flashes.
We seem to be in a macabre fairytale forest or wilderness, snowbound outside of Silver Creek, Colorado. Sheldon has been severely injured in a car crash, Annie has extricated him from his wrecked Mustang, and she has somehow carried him up from a deep ravine in a heavy snowstorm and brought him home, where she is nursing him back into shape with splints, pills, intravenous fluids, and injections. As Sheldon’s #1 fan, Annie must have obtained King’s permission to stalk her idol through the storm, making this whole yarn possible.
She is a nurse by trade, we quickly see, evidence of IV treatments still lingering in the bedroom Annie has selflessly devoted to Paul’s care. Yet as I observed in my review of the 2002 Off-Tryon production, this Annie is to nursing what Typhoid Annie was to food preparation. Whether she intends from very beginning to keep Paul on the premises as a companion to her pet pig, Misery, may be open to debate, but there are revelations that topple Annie’s already-shaky equilibrium.
Paul has decided that Misery’s Child, the newest installment in his popular Misery series, soon to arrive at bookstores everywhere, will be his last. The new manuscript in his briefcase, just finished at his nearby Colorado retreat, will be a total departure from those where Misery Chastain was his beloved protagonist, the woman who Annie credits for saving her life. Now that she has saved his life, she’s sees herself as entitled to disproportional payback from her captive. Autographing his new book for her will not be nearly enough.
She rips out the phone, fully cutting Paul off from the outside world and further plunging us into a nebulous bygone era. Devout enough to be outraged by the foul language in Paul’s manuscript, Annie can discard morality in the blink of an eye when it comes to granting her idol’s freedom. Anyone who has seen the film will vividly remember that violence is in her toolbag.
Of course, sudden explosions can always blow Paul’s cunningest escape plans to smithereens in seconds, but the finest aspect of King’s plotcraft is the cerebral battle between the imaginative author and his fanatical, adulating nurse. Avidly following his books, scrapbooking multitudes of magazine articles about him, and maybe picking up inside dope about him from nearby locals in and around the Silver Creek Lodge, Annie is a formidable adversary. She controls his food and his medicine – and as Paul’s #1 fan, she compounds her advantage by knowing so much about him.
Paul must first recover health and mobility. Then he must watch and study his keeper closely if he hopes to prevail. Rescue is tantalizingly close each time Buster, the local sheriff, drops by. But Paul isn’t aware of the initial visits as his disappearance continues to be investigated. On your way home after the thrilling climactic scenes – or maybe days later – you may begin to surmise how Paul subtly aided the inquiry.
Not all of Paul’s stratagems work in this chess game, and the retributions Annie wields on her idol can be shocking. Even more shocking onstage, perhaps, because we never get a full peep at Annie’s scrapbook and her backstory. It’s got to be tricky role for Becca Worthington to pull off live, especially since she comes off as a little more rustic than Bates and a tad meeker. The range is broader without the Hollywood coquetry, and Worthington pitches her performance more darkly when Annie veers out of control, in keeping with the gloomy lighting scheme, where sunshine and snowbanks have no place.
Costume designer Sophie Carlick also darkens our portrait of Annie, discarding the crucifix necklaces and the prim nurse-like outfits, such as Julie Andrews might wear strumming a guitar in a meadow, in favor of more rugged clothes she can credibly wear indoors and out: boots, knit socks, and dumpy cardigans. Sadly enough, when Paul asks Annie to celebrate Misery’s rebirth with a romantic dinner, Worthington doesn’t have the time, in a no-intermission production, to elaborately glam herself up for the occasion.
Timothy Hager has fewer rooms to navigate here as Sheldon than James Caan did in the movie, stealing contraband pills and a kitchen knife from the same room where his candlelight dinner scheme goes awry. Nor must he somehow emerge from a cellar – a fourth indoor location! – where he has been dumped because there is none. Yet Hager certainly manipulates his wheelchair with all the apparent difficulty of a newbie recovering from a separated shoulder, giving us the impression of an epic exploit. Without the benefit of closeup shots, he also makes sure that Paul’s fears are visible far beyond his eyes.
Effortlessly, Hager often radiates a shambling clumsiness in his attempts at hoodwinking Annie, a fallibility Caan hardly hinted at, endearing himself to us a bit pitiably in the darkness of this snakepit. Most importantly, Hager has a firm grip on the climactic typewriter scene where he precisely executes some truly nifty fight choreography.
Transitioning to stage, Goldman most radically altered the role is Sheriff Buster, who only visited the Wilkes cottage once in Goldman’s screenplay. Law widens the discrepancies, casting Roman Lawrence as the lawman in an auspicious Charlotte debut. Buster is no less easygoing now, but he is conspicuously younger and less snoopy, no longer visible in scenes at the office with his wife, up in the sky in a helicopter, at the crash scene, at the lodge where Paul finishes his books, in a library researching, or at the general store. Lawrence is the closest thing in this show to sunshine, arriving each time without apparent urgency or suspicion. That sharpens the drama in the denouement.
Production levels have been a bit eye-opening in the first two shows at the Queens Road barn this year, a place we’ve never before compared with Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in terms of technical prowess. With Misery, Hollywood has arrived in Charlotte at the service of thrillers. Prep for King’s famed hobbling scene was impeccable, eliciting audible gasps from the audience, but that was mere prelude. Both blood splatters in the closing scenes were absolutely spectacular, worlds beyond what community theatre delivered in my day when we taped blood capsules to ourselves backstage and hoped for the best.
These more sophisticated spectacles were likely a collaboration between Timmons and all three of the players, possibly Carlick as well, and perhaps triggered by sound cues. Or Bluetooth! The difficulty of the tech was best demonstrated at a key moment when it went wrong – Play-That-Goes-Wrong wrong. A wastebasket began smoking before Hager could toss a kitchen match into it. Presumably unnerved, Hager then tossed a key manuscript page toward the basket instead of slam dunking it to be sure. He missed!
On a movie set, these screw-ups would become a hilarious outtake. But onstage, instead of cracking up, Hager and Worthington covered up. Good thing they did, for the next cluster of fight choreography and SFX followed immediately, the most challenging moment of all. It was perfect.