THEATER REVIEW: “Misery” @ Great Lakes Theatre by Laura Kennelly

Through Sun 3/11

Well played, Great Lakes Theater! Misery, Stephen King’s 1987 best-selling thriller, is anything but misery-inducing, thanks to William Goldman’s dramatic adaptation now playing at the Hanna Theatre. Bravo to Charles Fee’s insightful direction, the fine cast and some terrific special effects. Misery had opening night viewers wincing in sympathetic pain one minute, terrorized another and laughing in the next (yes, there’s humor there).

The setup: During a winter storm, writer Paul Sheldon (Andrew May) author of the adored Misery Chastain series of romance novels (think Nora Roberts, Georgette Heyer or even Jane Austen) accidentally slides off the icy road and is trapped in his car.  He’s rescued despite a raging snow storm by the stalwart  Annie Wilkes (Kathleen Pirkl Tague) who takes him home and sets his broken legs.

That’s the backstory. Sheldon awakes to find Annie caring for him and learns she’s a nurse as well as a devoted reader of the Misery series. She is, she confides, his “Number One” fan. When Annie learns he has a new Misery Chastain romance, she quickly buys it, reads it and trouble starts: she insists that he rewrite it to her taste.  Sheldon’s relief that he’s being taken care of turns to terror when, eventually, he realizes that she intends to keep him “safe” forever. May, without undue histrionics, absorbs us into Sheldon’s plight as he brilliantly reveals his character’s  creative mind as well as his desperation. We want him to be saved; we are not sure he can be.

Tague’s Annie is a no-nonsense kind of gal who radiates a brilliant streak of crazy and sells her character’s insanity so carefully that we can’t really believe she’s going to do what she does. She just seems so “nice,” fixing him up a bed, nursing him, feeding him. But — just be glad if you don’t have any Number One fans. Trust us, you don’t want them.

Things look worse and worse. Eventually we pin our hopes on Nick Steen as Buster, the local sheriff, who is friendly, but nobody’s fool. But then things go awry in an explosive scene involving the whole cast (all three of them).

It’s an excellent production overall — what we’ve come to expect at Great Lakes. Costumes (Alex Jaeger), lighting design (Paul Miller), sound (Josh Schmidt) and especially special effects (Jason Tate) all hit just the right note. The cleverly designed set by scenic designer Gage Williams allows us to see both inside the house and outside.

The coolest thing about this play is that it’s funny. Maybe you have to be an aspiring novelist (raises hand) to think it funny, but a certain humor vibrates throughout. What if fans could capture their favorite authors and make them write things over? (If I could I’d drag Anna Karenina off the tracks, cure Beth March and save Snape.) While the  play (and the 1990 film) isn’t as violent as the novel, don’t bring the toddlers.

On the bright side, the story still can serve as a counterbalance to one’s unbridled wishes for fame and fortune. The idea ricochets inescapably around the plot that sometimes when you get what you want, it’s not what you want after all.

BOTTOM LINE: Happiness, not misery, at the Hanna. There were gasps of horror in the audience around me, but there were also soft chuckles and “ooos.” This outstanding production and its fine cast creates a dark comic horror and brings a wonderful theatrical escape from winter’s gloom.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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