Has Seldom Been As Fun As It Is At Empire Stage’s “Misery”
They may say that misery loves company; but, company or no, I can imagine it would be quite hard to come away from Empire Stage’s current production of Misery anything but satisfied. Based on the Stephen King classic, this spooky play is a perfect fit for the Halloween season, providing the requisite horror-style thrills but ultimately making a more lasting impact due to the chillingly believable nature of key antagonist Annie Wilkes.
At this point, the movie adaptation of King’s 1987 novel has become enough of a pop culture staple that most people who head to the play should be familiar enough with the broad plot and key scenes that they have some idea of what to expect. Still, it might be worth noting that anyone averse to depictions of violence may wish to keep their distance!
The protagonist of this twisted tale is the novelist Paul Sheldon, who finds himself in dire straits after a car accident that seriously injures him. Under the guise of nursing him back to health, the aforementioned Annie takes him into her home. And, at first, it’s surprisingly easy to sympathize with her, this cheery, generous woman who has decided to devote herself to a stranger in need.
But, as her bizarre worldview reveals itself and her enthusiasm turns to mania, her sinister motivations become clear, and the play morphs into a suspenseful thriller. She is not the demure Sheldon devotee she seems but a deranged stalker, willing to go to chilling extremes to keep her charge hers alone.
And so ensues a painkiller-fueled power struggle as Annie tries to maintain her tyrannical grip and Sheldon tries to escape her grasp. David R. Gordon is essential to the play’s success in his respectable portrayal of the physically incapacitated but steel-willed Paul, an everyman trying his best to survive truly insane circumstances. But it’s pretty clear that it’s his co-star Elizabeth Price who steals the show in the more colorful role of his captor, both adding to the play’s dark humor with her character’s off-the-wall enthusiasm and conveying the nuanced vulnerability that drives that character’s absurd behavior.
Actor Jim Gibbons also briefly adds an amusing energy to the mix as a sheriff who attempts to intervene, and it’s all under the direction of Michael Leeds, who manages to mold the familiar script into something consistently entertaining. There are points in which the claustrophobia and limited scope of the play translates into a sense of slowness, but that’s more than made up for at other points when the drama between the characters breaks through into visceral confrontations.
Though I can’t help but wish that the play’s script incorporated more of the book’s nuance, the material is still thematically rich enough to provide quite a lot of food for thought to anyone who comes looking for it. For example, I would think the parasocial attachment that Annie has developed to Paul has even more resonance in this online and overconnected age, where it is easier than ever for a devoted fan to gather intimate data about whatever trending youtuber he or she desires.
It also might be worth noting that Stephen King has referred to this story not only as an attempt to cope with the occasionally absurd expectations of his fans but as an allegory for his cocaine addiction. As with any sufficiently powerful drug, Annie can only seem a savior for so long before showing a deadly dark side, revealing her true colors only after a dependency develops.
As a writer, it’s also easy to see Annie’s incapacitating insanity as a metaphor for the isolating and crazy-making process of creativity itself. But as much fun as it is to contemplate these implications, you’ll be forgiven if you decide to sit back and simply enjoy the spiral. You have only until this October 30th to catch the madness of Misery for yourself!