“Misery” Has Plenty of Artistic Pleasures

The charming wood barn theater nestled in the woods down a beautiful country road has a very disturbing tenant for the next couple of weeks. Misery, the thriller about a writer held captive by his “number one fan” based on Stephen King’s novel, has taken up residence at Dorset Theatre Festival until 7/8. The 1987 novel was famously made into a blockbuster 1990 movie starring Kathy Bates, who earned an Oscar for her efforts, and James Caan as the writer, Paul Sheldon. Both the movie and stage adaptation are written by William Goldman.

Dan Butler & Kelly McAndrew/T Charles Erickson Photography

Paul Sheldon (Dan Butler) is a bestselling author of romance novels featuring his main character Misery Chastain. He has a terrible car accident during a Colorado snowstorm, sending his car off the road and down the side of a mountain, fracturing his legs and separating his shoulder while leaving nasty contusions over his face. Unfortunately for him, a nurse named Annie Wilkes (Kelly McAndrew) is following suspiciously close behind him and pulls him from the wreckage and, instead of delivering him to a hospital, sets him up in her house close by to minister to his needs. She is his “number one fan,” which she is proud to say repeatedly, and can not resist the opportunity to get up close and personal with the creator of her favorite character. The only other character in the play is a sheriff named Buster (Greg Stuhr), who occasionally stops by the Wilkes house to investigate the disappearance of the world-famous author.

Once you’ve seen a thriller and the initial shocks and surprises are gone, what brings you back for repeated viewings? I’ve never seen the movie…I don’t think. I’m so familiar with the set pieces and language of the iconic work through its saturation into the public consciousness that it feels like I’ve seen it.

Dan Butler/T Charles Erickson Photography

There are definitely themes of an artist’s stasis and decay tied to his most successful works and a very definite blinkered, conservative prudery that attacks freedom of expression while blithely committing far more heinous acts of real harm. Goldman leaves those themes mostly unexplored and simply serves up the narrative with the bedbound patient relying on the kindness of stranger Annie. In transferring to the stage, Goldman could have used a more in-depth reimagining.

Certainly, great motivation and appeal behind producing familiar titles is the style and freshness that theatrical expertise can lend the effort, and DTF has it in spades. Director Jackson Gay, who also helmed last season’s fun Wait Until Dark, leads her team in trying to meticulously breathe new life into this blockbuster. The bedside encounters are fully lived through and each progression in the horrible circumstance is given its weight and honest reaction by both Butler and McAndrew. Butler, so great in DTF’s production of the comic Slow Food in 2019, scores laughs but, more importantly, keeps our rapt attention as he goes from startled bemusement to enraged victim.

McAndrew has the taller order here, as the Bates performance lifted the material and made it the pop culture wonder that it is. McAndrew sympathetically delivers a lonely, harried woman at the mercy of her compulsions. I have to say it was a great thrill seeing McAndrew in this as she originated the role of the one-armed Major, John Wesley Powell, in Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats, a play and performance dear to my playgoing heart. Stuhr, who was hysterical as the waiter in Slow Food, has far less to do here, but he is a most welcome interruption that adds to the tension.

Gay has also scored with marshaling the technical elements, especially the set designed by Riw Rakkulchon. The Wilkes’ House is a frame with support beams visible and has been set on a revolve which is driven by four stagehands at each corner which can move from bedroom to kitchen to porch with some effort. The house moves more than the novelist in this production and gives us action to watch in this story with a stricken lead character. Movement through the house while it is rotating also gives a cinematic effect, like a dolly shot, adding visual interest. The lighting design by Joey Moro and sound design by Daniel Baker/Broken Chord also have great appeal. The many days of imprisonment passing are effectively presented, and the transition music through the many scenes is always interesting. I especially liked the underscoring at tense moments as well.

Misery at Dorset Theatre Festival is a very artful, lovingly considered take on this crowd-pleasing title that should do very well for them.

Misery runs through 7/8, Wed-Sun, at Dorset Theatre Festival. For tickets, visit: www.dorsettheatrefestival.org

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