Compared with the brutal, bloody, truly horrifying novel on which it’s based, the stage version of Stephen King’s “Misery” is a much tamer – but still tense — walk in the park.
Richmond Hill Park in Geneseo that is, as Richmond Hill Players does a stellar job with the material they’ve got, the William Goldman adaptation of King’s iconic 1987 story.
Directed with precision and finely-tuned suspense by Dana Skiles, this “Misery” stars RHP veterans Jonathan Grafft and Jackie Skiles as the romance novelist Paul Sheldon and his deranged, self-proclaimed “number-one fan,” Annie Wilkes.
In the chilling, intense story (perfect for this intimate in-the-round setting), Paul has been rescued from a Colorado car crash by Annie (a longtime nurse) and he wakes up severely injured (his legs in splints and right arm in a sling) and helplessly captive in her secluded home.
While Paul is convalescing and addicted to pain pills only she will give him, on her timeframe, Annie reads his latest book and becomes enraged when she discovers the author has killed off her favorite character, Misery Chastain.
It’s always a challenge for actors to take on famous roles that have been immortalized on screen – here the Oscar-winning Kathy Bates (she won for “Misery”) and James Caan in Rob Reiner’s 1990 film.
But Skiles and Grafft so surely and confidently embody these characters, that I didn’t even think of the screen version, which itself downplayed the vicious violence and Annie’s backstory (she’s actually a serial killer) from the book.
In “Misery” (with its obvious double meaning), we have two protagonists, and we can clearly identify with them both at the start, though we end up rooting for Paul to triumph from his kidnapping with his life intact.
A bewildered, pained Grafft is initially trapped in bed (he later becomes literally tied to it), completely controlled by Skiles, who reveals the determination, compassion and obsessed “love” of Annie for this author who’s penned eight Misery romance novels in which she revels.
She says Paul is her hero, and we quickly learn she is an unhealthy stalker who knows he always finishes his novels at a lodge nearby. Annie saw Paul leave the lodge as a big snow storm was coming, and she was at the right place at the right time to save him after he crashed his car.
We learn he wants to end his 20-year career writing about the 19th-century Misery and that his new novel is something totally new, the aptly named “Broken Places,” a contemporary tale set in New York City about a man who had everything, but crashed and burned (Sound familiar?).
In the actors’ expert portrayals, we both connect with Paul’s longing to break out of his shell and write a serious, gritty novel, and then we long for him to emerge unscathed after his recovery (and then hurt at Annie’s hands), as well as understanding why Annie so loves Misery.
Skiles nails the innocence and thrill of the superfan (like her excitement to get her hands on a 9th Misery book), and like a light switch, turning on her dead-eyed, threatening expression. In “Misery’s Child,” Paul writes that the heroine died in childbirth, and after Annie accuses him of murdering her, he argues that this was common for women in 1871.
Things go from bad to worse for Paul from then on out. “Now it’s your turn to suffer,” an angry Annie says at one point – uh-oh. She buys an old typewriter and forces Paul to write a new Misery novel, somehow bringing her back to life.
I loved Dana Skiles’ choice of intermission music – the country standard, “Crazy.”
Grafft and Jackie Skiles – each in their magnetic way, you can’t take your eyes off them – at turns bicker and attempt to charm, and the cat-and-mouse games keep you on the edge of your seat. The famous sledgehammer scene is a dramatic peak, but it’s far from the end of the stage combat.
Skiles is cold and relentless as the monster, and Grafft is great at capturing Paul’s frustration, cynicism and plotting an escape. Patrick Kelley is also solid as a nosy state trooper who tries to find Paul.
I’m very glad RHP took on this thriller, since so many of their plays are delightfully silly or feel-good stories (which obviously have their place). It’s also good to be unsettled and scared in the theater, especially knowing everyone can leave unharmed and back to normal life after it’s over.
“Misery” will continue in Geneseo at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday to Saturday, and close with a Sunday matinee 3 p.m. June 11.
Tickets are $12, available by calling the box office at 309-944-2244 or by visiting the RHP website HERE. Late seating is not permitted; no one will be admitted to the theater after the show has started.