‘Misery’ brings movie’s horror to stage with vivid intensity and focus
It is a daunting thing to transform a famous novel, which was turned into a famous movie, into something on the stage.
Stephen King’s novel about an obsessive super-fan named Annie Wilkes (who brings super-novelist Paul Sheldon to her remote Colorado home after a car crash) was made even more well-known after Kathy Bates and James Caan gave memorable performances in the 1990 film. Who can forget Bates’ chilling performance that made an unassuming looking middle-aged woman scare the daylights out of everyone? It was a horrifying psychological thriller, no monsters or ghosts required.
One admirable thing about Dirt Dogs Theatre Company’s production of “Misery,” running through March 18 at Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston, is that they are not afraid of a challenge, and make no mistake, this play written by the prolific William Goldman (of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Princess Bride” fame) is ambitious: The characters are complex, the physicality of the acting is demanding and most of the audience may have already read the novel, seen the film, or both.
But this makes no difference at all, even if you know every plot point of the book or film, you are still going to jump in your seat when psychopathy or violence erupts. Trevor B. Cone as Paul Sheldon and Malinda L. Beckham as Annie Wilkes make the roles their own, instead of just microwaving or imitating the performances of Bates and Caan.
On stage, as in the film, Annie is still susceptible to paranoia and the extreme splitting that comes with borderline personality disorder: One minute, Paul Sheldon is the man and writer of her dreams, the next minute, he is just a “dirty birdy” who needs to be punished for killing off her favorite character in his novels, Misery Chastain. Beckham allows us to be right there listening to her wistful memories of reading his novels, watching her use her skills as a former nurse to treat her new hostage’s wounds and then do the most unthinkable acts of artistic destruction and violent punishment. It might be even creepier in the small theater: Like Cone’s frustrated yet savvy Sheldon, we too feel the suffocation of the room and the sinking feeling that there is no way out.
The acting is excellent. Cone is perfectly sarcastic and ironic when needed — watching him play the game of appeasing a psycho is riveting. Beckham does something that may be hard to imagine: We see a lonely, isolated woman who has lost her mother and lives for fiction. Yes, she is totally bonkers, but we have moments of sympathy for her anyway. How can we not, with her postures of defeat, her laced collar dresses, her humble shoes, her heroin-level addiction to fiction. She is the walking caveat for what can happen when someone has no real love: they have to imagine it, or go to violent extremes to force it. What can I say? These performances have guts. You will laugh, you will wince, and you will wonder how such terrible things can be so darkly and deliciously comic.
From AC/DC blaring from a crashing car, to the Liberacelaced musical bridges, to the pouring rain reminding us that, even if he escapes the house, Paul Sheldon isn’t going anywhere. Jon Harvey’s sound design is brilliant, dovetailing well with John Baker’s lighting design and Mark Lewis’ scenic design of the bedroom with the 1980s crocheted afghan and kitschy antique car prints on the wall. There is also a huge signed photo of Paul Sheldon on the wall. Just wait until you see why a barbecue grill is hauled into this room.
Dirt Dogs Theatre Company’s seventh season has already given us a superlative “Clybourne Park,” and now they are sinking their teeth into “Misery,” proving they are willing to tackle demanding works and deliver beyond whatever preconceptions theatergoers may have. The production doesn’t just imitate the film, it makes the stage the intense and focused locale for characters who dramatize the crazed forms that fame might take if taken too far. From veiled insults in witty dialogue, to amped up intrigue, “Misery” is actually a delight.