Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Uber-popular novelist of Victorian romances, Paul Sheldon, wakes up in January of 1987 to find himself in a strange bedroom and with both legs broken and his right arm in a sling. He discovers that his car went off the road during a massive blizzard near Silver Creek, Colorado, where he has just finished his latest manuscript. He is soon grateful that a local woman–and resident of the rustic, woods-secluded home where he evidently is now–saw the wreck, pulled him out of the car, and brought him to her home. And it seems that his good luck out did itself in that Annie Wilkes is both a former nurse (and thus able to care for him) and his self-proclaimed "Number One Fan" of the many novels about a nineteenth-century woman named Misery Chastain.
To show his gratitude to Annie, Paul has shared the typed manuscript of his latest novel which–unbeknownst to Annie–is to launch his "post-Misery" period. Thrilled, Annie sits up all night listening to Liberace and reading, only to burst in the room screaming, "Every other word is the F-word ... My mother would have washed your mouth out with soap." Her wrath is visible, and there is more than a hint that she is not going to tolerate her favorite author ruining his (and thus, Misery's) reputation in this way. That the manuscript will never leave this house is not yet ordained– but the writing seems already to be on the wall.
However, to our and Paul's surprise, Annie returns the next day a bit more forgiving, especially when she walks in with a copy of Paul's latest published book, "Misery's Child," which the local bookstore has reserved especially for her. As bedridden Paul signs her copy, "To Annie Wilkes, who by saving me, saved Misery," little does he know that this obviously quite obsessed fan will soon believe that she has been ordained by God to be Misery's savior once she realizes how this latest book actually ends. Anyone who has ever read a Stephen King book must know that given we are barely fifteen minutes into the ninety of this stage version, there are still many terrible, horrible things to happen.
To reveal any more of what happens over the next days and weeks of Paul's confinement and of Annie's overseeing his road to recovery would ruin chances for future audience members to have their fair share of the ever-mounting surprises and shocks–for both Paul and Annie. A perky but pesky sheriff named Buster (Zachary Vaughn-Munck) also keeps knocking on Annie's door, adding a bit more suspense as he is searching for any clues of what happened to the now-long-missing, famous author from New York City.
A perennial favorite of local stages, Maria Marquis, is absolutely the hilt of both charming and creepy, sweet and scary, motherly and monstrous as Annie Wilkes. Her Jekyll-Hyde sides are fascinating and frightening to watch as she sometimes switches persona in the opening and closing of a bedroom door. One moment she can be cooing comforts to her patient, assuring him that as his greatest fan, she has now been granted by God a chance to make him and Misery "the envy of the world." In the next, such a rage can so overtake her that her hands shake uncontrollably, her eyes seem to emit fire, and a trembling, tumultuous voice sets forth a torrent of threats. And do not think that this quite slender, somewhat delicate-looking woman does not have fierce strength in those arms. Just wait!
The power of William Goldman's script, Kimberly Ridgeway's direction, and especially Maria Marquis' skill is that this Annie actually more often than not elicits our sympathy, understanding, and even pity in between horrifying us with her demonic desires and plans. Hers has been a lonely and isolated life–and it seems that her one and only friend has been Misery Chastain.
As Paul Sheldon, Christopher Mahle also rises to stellar heights in a prone position in bed as he portrays the pain of a debilitating accident, the fear of what may come next from a woman totally obsessed by his fictional character, and the sheer drive to survive in a situation where more and more, to do so seems impossible. When given a creaky typewriter and a ream of his favorite paper, his Paul cannot resist beginning to crank out a new manuscript with zeal and ardor, even as he is looking over his shoulder to see what misery (excuse the pun) may be coming his way next.
While not on stage, a major character of the play's action is Christian Vaughn-Munck, the production's fight captain whose resume is long and revered here in the Bay Area. Without telling too much, suffice it to say that there is a lot of physical action that becomes very realistic in sound and sight. That there are no actual injuries in all the mayhem that ensues is a credit to his skill.
As scenic designer, Gillian Ortega places us in the backwoods of Colorado and in a home that gives us a good idea–along with the properties designed by Kevin Davies–of its owner. Roosters by the dozens adorn the kitchen wallpaper along with an iron pig hanging on its walls; a deer's head hangs in the parlor along with a large, framed picture of Annie's favorite author, Paul Sheldon; and a large crucifix dominates the sparsely decorated bedroom. All and more tell of a woman still living much like her mother probably did.
The three rooms spin slowly on a turntable, usually as we hear the piano mastery of Annie's other fave in life, Liberace. There are several times when, during costume/scene changes in the ninety-minute, no intermission production, that the twirling of the stage from empty room to empty room becomes a bit annoying and a momentary energy drainer.
Edward Hunter's lighting also places us both in dense woods and in the midst of mystery and dread. Defining forest shadows and spooky, dappled lighting in the midst of night are coupled with startling light as Annie makes the latest discovery bound to result in something not too pleasant. The sounds of midnight storms are just one of the effects Samuel Fiedel masterfully employs to bring home the threat of the story before us.
All in all, Stephen King as well as William Goldman would surely be pleased if either were to drop into Palo Alto Players' current staging of Misery. Clearly, their fans had their expectations more than met by the sound of whoops and applause at the curtain call of the evening I attended.
Misery runs through February 4, 2024, at Palo Alto Players, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.
Please Note: This production is recommended for ages 17 and older. Misery is rated R and contains onstage violence, gunshots, and strong adult language.