In his 2000 memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, screenwriter/playwright William Goldman discusses the very first screening of “Misery,” his adaptation of Stephen King’s acclaimed 1987 novel. King was in attendance, Goldman wrote, so the screenwriter was expectedly nervous about his reaction. To Goldman’s delight, the novelist sat as enraptured as the average audience member. Recalling the climax, in which Annie Wilkes carries a tray of Champagne to Paul Sheldon’s room, while secretly planning to kill him, Goldman wrote, “As Annie takes the tray down to Paul’s room, an edgy Stephen King is hunkered down in his seat, muttering to himself. And this is what he is saying: ‘Look out … don’t trust her … she’s got a gun in her ayy-pron …”
I remember this aside, more than 20 years after reading it, because it speaks to the ability to great art to sink its claws into us, even if—especially if—we can see exactly what’s coming. If the story’s creator can still find himself on edge when he knows precisely where each cog fits into each gear, it’s a surefire sign the adaptation is working.
I wonder what King might take from Empire Stage’s production of Goldman’s stage adaptation of “Misery,” running through Oct. 30 in Fort Lauderdale. Directed by Michael Leeds, it’s a handsome, industrious production that makes economic use of its black-box space. The definition of a chamber drama, it’s a lean piece of theatre even at 105 uninterrupted minutes, distilling King’s fiction down to, largely, two people in a room.
But it’s the tonal shift to which the author might take issue. As this “Misery” winds toward its conclusion, a kind of ecstatic camp usurps the boiling dread of King’s novel and Rob Reiner’s film. A character collapses from a gunshot wound with the risible theatricality of cowboys in old B-westerns, and from this point on, there’s no turning back. This “Misery” doesn’t just border on parody; it crosses the line with gusto and intention.
I’m of two minds about this: In the moment, it’s an effectively delivered and satisfying example of creative license—the audience at Sunday’s performance seemed to love it—but it leaves a tacky aftertaste, in no small part because the build-up to it strikes a far richer balance of dark comedy and harrowing psychodrama.
The play opens with Paul Sheldon (David Gordon), best-selling author of Victorian bodice-rippers, groggily awakening from a car accident that nearly took his life. A snowstorm rages outside, and he’s in a bedroom in the Colorado farmstead of Annie Wilkes (Elizabeth Price), a nurse who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to pull his dying body from his totaled car. She also just happens to be his “No. 1 fan,” a self-bestowed title she wears with the honor of a veteran sporting a Purple Heart.
As in the narrative’s other iterations, Annie at first seems like the ultimate smitten caregiver gifted the privilege of harboring her hero back to health. But various disruptions to her idealized image of Paul—the rough language he uses in his latest manuscript, and a particularly egregious decision in his latest “Misery Chastain” romance—gradually leads the puritanical Annie into a space of deranged, righteous vengeance.
While Goldman’s dialogue leans into the sadistic humor of King’s book (“What’s the ceiling that dago painted?” Annie muses, referencing the Sistine Chapel, in this production’s most uproarious line), Leeds’ direction can certainly chill us to the bone when it wants to. Thunderclaps, courtesy of David Hart’s sound design, function like jump scares supplementing Annie’s eruptions, which jolt us as much as they do Paul.
Indeed, Elizabeth’s Price split-personality oscillations from angel to devil constitute their own master class in acting. There’s nothing quite like her first startling, retaliatory actions toward Paul, which she plays with a feral intensity. She portrays Annie with the ferocity of a scorned lover whose capacity for revenge is bottomless. She rarely seems to blink, yet also captures an effervescent glee in her actions; when she pours lighter fluid over Paul’s braced legs, it’s as if she’s drizzling pesto over her next meal. Her laugh lines walk a similar tightrope, landing with a sick, uncomfortable potency. Perhaps most importantly, Price makes this demented character her own—I never thought of Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance, which has defined Annie Wilkes in the popular consciousness.
Jim Gibbons appears in a few scenes as the town’s sheriff. Chewing a toothpick, he adopts a folksy drawl, and agreeably plays up the deceptively bemused naivety of the local investigator who’s just asking questions.
As Paul Sheldon, Gordon inhabits perhaps the play’s most thankless role. Bedridden or wheelchair-bound for 99 percent of the play, he builds character mostly through facial expressions and vocal delivery, and it’s a well-calibrated performance. He paints a picture of Paul as someone who uses deadpan humor as a defense mechanism to survive this most, indeed, miserable time of his life. When he hobbles out of a bad, groaning and wincing—and aided by a gruesome and accurate makeup job on his purple, swollen, bloody legs—we believe every painful movement.
His Paul doesn’t seem like a particularly nice person, and is sympathetic largely because nobody should endure such torture; he’s perhaps even a bit of an elitist prick. This, I think, is very much King’s original intention: Just as Annie is a complex villain with a traumatic backstory (“In my whole life, [my mother] was the only person who never let me down,” she offers), Paul is an imperfect hero.
In addition to the atmospheric sounds of rain and thunder, Hart’s soundscapes include the use of Annie’s scratchy Liberace records as a clever leitmotif and counterpoint. Ardean Landhuis’ set design (whose properties include mocked-up books of all of Paul’s Misery Chastain novels) is a modest marvel in its division of space, showing us not just the central location of Paul’s recovery room but hints of a dining room and hallway as well.
Much of this production’s effectiveness, then, calls into starker relief the decision to go histrionic instead of terrifying in the play’s final third. Unlike being in the care of Annie Wilkes, it ultimately becomes all too easy to sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
“Misery” runs through Oct. 30 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $35. Call 954/678-1496 or visit empirestage.com.