Dialing Back Ramps Up The Effect In Misery

Trevor B. Cone and Malinda L. Beckham in Misery at Dirt Dogs Theatre
Trevor B. Cone and Malinda L. Beckham in Misery at Dirt Dogs Theatre Photo by Gary Griffin
What a thrill the stage adaptation of Misery (written by William Goldman in 2015) could have been if it had something to say about toxic fandom and the psychological perils of celebrity worship.

Issues meaningful to us even if they're hidden in a good old-fashioned thriller.

Instead, the play based on the 1987 Stephen King novel and heavily informed by the successful 1990 film version, regurgitates what we’ve already read and seen. A famous novelist held captive by his deranged super fan.

It's a silly, violent, somewhat campy thriller that, at almost two hours, goes on too long despite entertaining and even shocking us along the way.

But that's a criticism of the play, not the production, now onstage at Dirt Dogs Theatre, directed handsomely by Curtis Barber. The play is what the play is, no getting around that.

But in this case, we can excuse the tautology because we're gifted with some surprisingly smart choices and devices that elevate this show beyond nostalgia or kidnap genre porn.

Thanks to an entire artistic team doing excellent work, Misery ironically becomes a joy to watch. This despite the show's paper-thin plot that distills King's novel down to a two-hander that takes place all in one cottage un-chic bedroom, here nicely designed by Mark Lewis and beautifully lit by John Baker.

Romance novelist Paul (Trevor B. Cone) is rescued from a mid-blizzard horrendous car accident in rural Colorado by his self-proclaimed number-one fan, Annie (Malinda L. Beckham). A former nurse, she recognizes his shattered legs and dislocated shoulder and drags him back to her isolated home to tend to the wounds.

At first grateful, Paul soon learns that he's been kidnaped as Annie controls how often he gets pain medication and stalls every time he mentions contacting his agent and daughter to tell them he's alive.

Things take a turn for the worse when she learns that in his latest novel about to be released, he kills off long-time heroine, Misery Chastain – a character Annie is pathologically obsessed with.

A battle of wills ensues, with Annie demanding a rewrite to bring Misery back to life and Paul frantically trying to figure out how to escape the increasingly violent prison Annie is keeping him in.

click to enlarge
Trevor B. Cone and Malinda L. Beckham negotiate a dangerous dance.
Photo by Gary Griffin

And that’s capital V on the violence. Misery is not a show for the squeamish. If you've read the book or more likely seen the movie, you know the lengths Annie goes to re-injure Paul to keep him paralyzed and captive.

What makes this production so clever is that while the action ramps up to 11, the cast holds steady at 7. This isn't the over-the-top fabulously unhinged Kathy Bates and uber-smarmy James Caan movie version many of us are familiar with. Instead, Barber and his cast zig where the movie zagged.

Beckham plays Annie as smaller, quieter and less broad. The result is effectively disturbing. She shuffles in and out of the captive bedroom frumpily hunched in her multitude of sensible corduroy floor-length skirts, scratchy sweaters and granny glasses (Beckham as costume designer), barely raising her voice, even in anger. Firm, but not wild.

“Oh Paul, we’re going to be so happy here,” Beckham lets slip as a foreshadowing whisper. Nothing grandiose in her delivery, but chilling nonetheless.

Her control amidst Annie’s mania feels frightening. Whereas Kathy Bates wowed us with her explosions (unique at the time for a woman to be the aggressor in this fashion), Beckham impresses with her restraint. There’s no doubt this is her show to steal and she takes every inch of each scene and then some.

Cone still must deliver the show’s most incongruous dialogue, smart mouthing when he should be terrified. Getting laughs when his life is on the line. Able to play mind games despite his debilitating pain. But he too pulls it back to make it more believable.

Additionally, kudos must go to Cone for giving one of the best phlegmy grunt in pain performances we've seen recently in Houston. And not just for one scene. Cone's pain grunts damn near most of the second act, whether it's the effort of the attempted escape or the withstanding of Annie's punishment.

Thriller suspense is hard to capture on stage. Especially when many of us know how the story plays out. But Cone certainly helps us feel the show's stress as we experience his struggle in full audible glory.

However, it’s impossible to mention audible without tipping our hat to the undeniable third star of this production, Jon Harvey’s moody and evocative all-permeating sound design.

From the opening minutes of the show featuring a mash-up of horrific car crash sound effects overlaid with an AC/DC car radio blare, to the thunderstorms that pepper the play, Harvey gives us moody space, place and then some.

But it’s his ever-increasing dissonant string snippets that illustrate and enhance the show’s growing tension that are the real win.

A book can draw you in with wordy creepiness. A movie can use camera angles to tell you how to feel. On stage, it's harder to force a feeling, but here the music is the perfect stress heightener that gets us where we need to be.

It was fun on opening night to hear who in the audience knew where we were going and who was shocked by events. Those that knew laughed, and those who didn't gasped. Well, in fairness, we probably all gasped at times. Such is the effect of crushing bones on stage.

No question it’s a fun show, if that’s your jam.

Still, is breaking free of the easy convention too much to wish for when it comes to Misery? Maybe the play is just a relic that can't be pushed and should just be retired as a result.

I’ll vote for that after this production. But not before. See it here folks, as different as it can be and well done at that.

Misery continues through March 18 at MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, visit $35.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman