Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Mlima's Tale
Paul Sheldon is an author who made his mark with a best-selling series of novels centered on a virtuous nineteenth century heroine named Misery Chastain. There have been eight "Misery" books to date, with a ninth about to hit the stands. Paul has always done his writing at a remote mountain lodge in Colorado. Having just finished another book, one that gave him a chance to stretch his writing muscles with something besides more "Misery," he embarks on the drive back to his New York City home when a monster blizzard descends. Paul skids down the side of a mountain, his car demolished and him half-dead. He well may have died at the scene if not for Annie Wilkes, a former nurse who lives in the mountains. Annie spots his car, manages to extract Paul from the wreckage and brings him to her isolated house, using her nursing skills to treat his injuries. She also happens to have a large supply of pain medication which enables Paul to endure his condition.
Annie tells Paul that the roads are too snow-blocked to get him to a hospital, and that their phone lines are down (it is 1987, by the way, so they depend on land lines), so she will nurse him at her home until the roads open up. It turns out that she is a huge fan of the "Misery" novels, declaring herself to be the writer's "number one fan." We figure out pretty quickly she is not just speaking admiringly: she really believes that no one could possibly appreciate his work as much as she does, and that it is not just his writing, but the character Misery that Annie adores. Indeed, she seems to conceive of Misery as a real presence in her life, the only source of anything resembling hope for her.
Annie manages to get a copy of the new "Misery" book and is incensed by the writer's treatment of the character this time out. She makes it clear she will not allow Paul to leave until he changes Misery's fate. Paul points out the book is finished, already being read by readers around the country, but Annie states her belief that a writer is god to the characters he creates and can make anything he wants to happen to them. By now we–and Paul–know that Annie is not only delusional, but dangerous.
The character Annie Wilkes is made to order for scenery chewing–giving an actor the opportunity to express two very different personas: a sweet, nurturing nurse dedicated to her patient's welfare while speaking in a girlish voice; and a madwoman for whom any act of cruelty is justified if it maintains the delusions that are the entire substance of her life. The role earned (then) newcomer Kathy Bates the 1991 Academy Award for Best Actress, and a 2016 Tony nomination for Laurie Metcalf playing the part on Broadway. At Yellow Tree, George Keller gives a fantastic performance, bringing both facets of the challenging but meaty role to life so that we are able to hate Annie one moment and have sympathy for her the next, at least in the early going. As Annie's behavior becomes increasingly violent it is hard to maintain sympathy for her. Even then, Keller portrays Annie as out of control, but her insanity stems from things that have gone very wrong in her life; she has no choice about allowing a monstrous persona to grow within her.
Paul Sheldon is a far less showy role, but the playwright and actor Bill McCallum make up for that by embossing the character with droll wit: when, finally, Annie procures a wheelchair so Paul can get out of bed, for example, and asks how he likes it, his reply is "Great, I've always wanted to visit the other side of the room." McCallum makes a terrific Paul, charming enough to believe he has become a gushed-over celebrity author on the talk show circuit, savvy enough to hatch schemes to escape his imprisonment, and ferocious enough, when the time is at hand, to fight back against Annie's brutality.
Keller and McCallum–along with Valencia Proctor, doing fine work in a small but pivotal role as a local sheriff–are directed by John Catron to play to a rising line of tension from the very first scene to the final blackout. Each new twist in the plot feels plausible, given the fraught starting place, and the interactions between Annie and Paul feel true to life in spite of the bizarre circumstances that bring and keep them together. There are some intense skirmishes between the two, and fight choreographer Mike Lubke has staged them to feel as real as we could possibly want them to be without thinking that the actors are actually hurting one another.
Justin Hooper has designed sets for all of the theater company's productions since their post-COVID reopening, so he knows to the square inch how to maximize use of their small stage area. The set for Misery is extremely well conceived, with the bedroom Paul occupies pushed up front, a broken half wall behind it allowing a view of Annie's kitchen, the house's front hall, and the area just outside the front door. The decor is as busy, with cute patterns as one would expect of Annie, whose life is a denial of reality. Samantha Fromm Haddow's costumes serve the production extremely well, with the hand-me-down dress Annie wears for a "romantic" dinner with Paul especially on point.
Kathy Maxwell's lighting and Jeff Bailey's sound design provide the requisite intensity for each scene, with sounds of vehicles starting up or arriving, birds chirping and changing weather. Bailey also serves as music director with either eerie scoring or romantic old-time recordings–Annie likes to put on Liberace while reading her Misery books–used to bridge scenes. Toward the end of the evening at the performance I attended, the sound system was off, with the music sounding as if the recordings were warped. Perhaps this is intentional, to signify Annie's warped behavior, but more likely an equipment malfunction which will undoubtedly be addressed before the next performance.
The title "Misery" refers, of course, to the character created by Paul, that became the source of all comfort to Annie–at one point she states that only her mother and Misery had never disappointed her. It also signifies what Annie's life would be like without that character to bolster her miserable life, as well as the conditions she imposes on Paul during his captivity. Perhaps, finally, Stephen King may have come up with that title to reflect on Paul's feeling as a writer trapped within the confines of churning out formulaic romance novels when he yearned to write what he considered "more serious" works. Annie, but the way, retorts that "Misery" is very serious.
Fans of the book will be glad, I presume, to know that the most graphically violent incident has been altered, as it was in the movie, to make it less horrifying, though it's still plenty painful. That said, there are scenes of intentionally inflicted pain and simulated blood, so be forewarned. The play also omits some information about Annie's backstory that is in the book and the movie, which may play to her advantage, as the omitted content can only further diminish our sympathy for the character.
Yellow Tree has mounted a highly polished, appropriately grueling rendition of Misery. It will be great fun for fans of this genre, with the bonus of taking in superb performances by George Keller and Bill McCallum.
Misery runs through March 19, 2023, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. Tickets: $31 - $35; $3 per ticket discount for seniors (65+), students with valid ID, military personnel, and groups of ten or more. $15 rush seats go on sale the day of performance, pending availability. Masks are required at Sunday performances. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit YellowTreeTheatre.com.
Playwright: William Goldman; Director: John Catron; Assistant Director: Brandon Raghu; Set Design and Technical Production Coordinator: Justin Hooper; Costume Designer: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Music Director/ Sound Designer: Jeff Bailey; Props Master: Brandt Roberts; Fight Choreography: Mike Lubke; Stage Manager: Charles Fraser; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Smith; Artistic Director: Austene Van.
Cast: George Keller (Annie Wilkes), Bill McCallum (Paul Sheldon), Valencia Proctor (Buster).