Cleveland, Ohio — Merriam-Webster defines thriller as “a work of fiction or drama designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure or suspense.”
Based on this definition, the dictionairy should add Great Lakes Theater’s intriguing and suspenseful production of “Misery” to the list of examples used to illustrate the word.
Famous author Paul Sheldon (Andrew May) has just finished his latest novel and is driving from Colorado to his home in New York when he is in a car crash. By what seems like a stroke of luck, Paul is “rescued” by nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathleen Pirkl Tague) who takes him to her remote home and patches up his two broken legs and dislocated shoulder. While waiting for the roads to clear, Paul learns that Annie is his “biggest fan” and is especially fond of his romance novels staring the character Misery Chastain. But when Annie reads the last edition of the Misery franchise she is unhappy with the ending, so Paul will just have to stay and write her a new book—whatever the cost.
Stephen King wrote the book “Misery” in 1987 and three years later, it was turned into a film starring Kathy Bates and James Caan. With Bates winning an Oscar for her role as Annie and “Misery’s” lasting impression on thriller and horror aficionados, it was only a matter of time before the film’s screenwriter William Goldman also adapted the story for the stage. But when “Misery” ran on Broadway from November 2015 to February 2016, the show received mixed reviews on account of Bruce Willis’ emotionless portrayal as Paul.
Under the direction of Charles Fee, Great Lakes Theater’s production of “Misery” has no such problem, because the acting is remarkable in its authenticity and intensity.
The most cringe worthy moment of the show is without a doubt the ‘hobbling’ scene, a famous moment for which the film is best known. For those familiar with the movie, it may come as a surprise that Great Lakes’ rendition of this scene is even more disturbing than the film’s already gruesome version. The level of discomfort and empathy is increased tenfold when Paul’s screams are heard in person rather than through speakers, when his writhing figure is mere feet away rather than being seen through the intangible distance of a screen. Here, the power of live theater stretches its muscles.
The audience watches as this man, an innocent thrust into the captivity of a madwoman, struggles for his life right in front of us. This wasn’t filmed decades ago and is being played back to us — it is happening now. As police man Buster (a charming Nick Steen) makes unannounced visits to Annie’s home, it is tempting to call out to him, telling him Paul is just inside the house. But that would hardly be appropriate, so audience members urgently whisper to themselves, “Just look through the window.” And so we sit in our plush seats, witnessing a horror unfold just feet away, silent but still fidgeting.
Of course, there is the voice in the back of your mind that reminds you that it is all fake — that these are just actors, and no one is really being tortured by a psycho. But then there is the instinctual piece of you, the humane part that is urging you to help the man screaming on stage. You want to warn Paul when Annie shows up with a hypodermic needle, or when Buster is just outside of his room. These are all things that you can yell at your screen while watching a film, knowing that the characters will never here you. With theater, the idea that these characters could here your warnings adds another layer of discomfort—discomfort that is already peaked because of May and Tague’s stellar acting.
As May bows for curtain call, it’s almost staggering to see how well his legs are working. For the past 90 minutes, the actor has been the victim of a debilitating car crash, suffering crushed limbs and other tortures, his agony evident in his pure hearted screams and groans. Fellow audience members wince as May crashes to the floor, landing on his broken legs, and gasp as Annie hits him on his damaged knee. Wishing an actor to break a leg is a mantra of good luck but May seems to have taken this saying literally—and in the best way.
Tague also embodies her role with a stunning authenticity. Annie becomes this depressing yet terrifying villain, one who simultaneously makes you feel sympathetic and frightened. This is due to Tague’s ability to go from the lonely, middle-aged woman with a failed marriage to an obsessive, hysterical and seemingly unstoppable force. The play version of “Misery” leaves out a listing of Annie’s previous victims, perhaps making her more empathetic than in the film.
The play is laced with dry humor that fits surprisingly well with the circumstances of the show. Paul’s growing disgust toward Annie results in funny quips while Annie has a few of her own humorous moments. The incorporation of well-landed humor makes the production seem like a collage of emotions—it will have you chuckling one minute and choking on your laughter the next.
Annie’s matronly and dated appearance, gifted to her by Alex Jaeger’s costume design, gives the character a seemingly innocent appearance that certainly makes her more sympathetic. This is countered by Gage Williams’ set design of Annie’s Colorado home. Paul’s room sits closest to the audience, accessible through a doorway that leads to a raised kitchen. With shutters that are hanging by a single hinge and a roof that is purely beams, the ramshackle house is telling of Annie’s mental state. While the design of the house allows for most of the action to take center stage, the passage for the characters to reach the kitchen takes longer than comfortable. The time it takes to go between rooms becomes redundant and hinders the otherwise well-paced action.
More intense scenes are accompanied by foreboding music and sounds designed by Josh Schmidt. Crashes of thunder and moments with an incessant ticking clock are certainly anxiety inducing. With gaps in the drywall, the set allows for plenty of haunting, yet beautiful, lighting designed by Paul Miller. However, in one corner of the home, this design also allows for the audience to see shadows of the stagehands, which is distracting.
One doesn’t usually go to the theater to feel discomfort, anxiety and dread, but in Great Lakes Theater’s “Misery,” these emotions are welcome and justified.
WHERE: Hanna Theatre, 2067 E 14th St, Cleveland, OH
WHEN: Through March 11, 2018
TICKETS & INFO: $15 — $80 / Students $13 , call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com
Kathleen Pirkl Tague (Annie) and Andrew May (Paul). Photo by Roger Mastroianni.