A man lies in bed, clearly in pain, his face bloody. His first words to the woman standing at the foot of the bed are that it was a miracle she found him. She agrees: “Lucky for you I did.” We learn that he is Paul Sheldon, a writer of Victorian romance novels starring a central character named Misery Chastain, and she is Annie Wilkes, a onetime nurse. His car skidded off the road while he was driving through the snowy Colorado mountains; she came upon the wreck, pried him out of the car and has brought him to her isolated home, where she inexpertly set his shattered legs and gave him a drug for pain. She is thrilled to have her favorite author on the premises, and more than anxious to read his latest book, Misery’s Child, which is about to hit the bookstores. “I’m your number-one fan,” she croons.
You know where you are, of course. This is William Goldman’s Misery, a dramatization of Stephen King’s horror novel now receiving a searing production at the Edge Theatre. You may have read the book or seen the film starring Kathy Bates and James Caan, but you have never experienced this freaky story in such an intimate environment. The theater is so small that you can see every shade of feeling pass over the actors’ faces, even smell the food when Annie sets down a celebratory dinner in front of Paul: meatloaf made according to her mother’s recipe, with fresh tomatoes and just a touch of Spam for flavor.
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It’s a big plus that these two actors are so good. Rick Yaconis takes us through all of Paul’s changes, as Emma Messenger’s Annie reveals more and more of her madness. At first, drug-dazed and weakened, he finds her nurturance comforting, though some of what she says puzzles him. He’s startled by her anger when she reads the manuscript he had with him and discovers it’s not another Misery Chastain novel, but a semi-autobiographical work, filled with expletives and intended to start his career on a more literary path. The punishment she puts him through is nasty, but it’s nothing compared to the storm that erupts when she eventually gets her hands on Misery’s Child and discovers that the protagonist dies. Yaconis’s face and his silences reveal his slowly dawning realization that this woman is barking mad and, further, vicious, controlling and capable of murder. As Paul’s wounds heal, Yaconis’s performance gains vitality, too, and then we see his cunning and endurance, his escape attempts, the pleasure he takes in deceiving Annie and, eventually, his own violent rage. Messenger deploys her entire, powerful arsenal as an actor to communicate Annie’s deceptive softness and the steely will behind it, her volatile mix of helplessness, vindictiveness and fear. There are a couple of scenes with the folksy local sheriff, well played by Dan Mundell, but for most of the evening — which involves a longish first act, followed by a second that sweeps you breathlessly along — these two carry the action. It says a lot for their talent and the way they work together that we’re riveted throughout.
There are autobiographical elements in the novel: King felt pressured and limited by his readers’ negative response to his non-horrific fantasy novel The Eye of the Dragon and wondered if he was now shackled to a single genre for the rest of his life. In an interview, he also told Rolling Stone that Annie represented his onetime cocaine addiction: “Misery is a book about cocaine,” he said. “Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan.”
This production, directed by Warren Sherrill, serves in part as an homage to old horror movies; dramatic moments are punctuated by flashes of lightning and surges of thunder so loud you half expect Bette Davis or Joan Crawford to walk onto the stage. But none of these ironic effects detracts from the tension. Stephen King has said he doesn’t consider himself a literary writer and has expressed great admiration for writers who are — but, damn, the man has a hell of a talent for telling a story, complete with compelling dialogue and head-spinning plot twists. I’d seen Misery before and half-remembered what happens, but the ending still delivered that moment of pleasurable shock, followed by a lingering creepiness.
Misery, presented by the Edge Theatre through May 21, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.