Julia Gibson and Karl Kenzler star in PlayMakers Repertory Company's Production of Misery. Photo by HuthPhoto.
When audience members sit down for Misery, the latest offering from PlayMakers Repertory Company, they’re instantly immersed in a soft, quiet world, one where snow falls gently in the background. A cozy onstage scene—two people nestled inside a small home, with one of them dozing in bed—adds to the lulling feeling. But, as this play, written by William Goldman and based on the novel by Stephen King, will soon reveal, things aren’t always what they seem. For proof, one only has to turn to Annie Wilkes (Julia Gibson), one of the two main characters in this tightly knit, three-person production.
Annie looks sweet and gentle at first glance, and to writer Paul Sheldon (Karl Kenzler), the aforementioned man in bed, she’s a welcome sight when he awakes to find he’s been involved in a serious accident. Luckily for him, Annie tells him, she brought him home, cleaned him up, and cared for him. She also, she reveals, happens to be a huge fan of his work. In fact, she’s his number one fan, and she’s completely committed to caring for him until the weather clears and the roads open.
As the days pass, however, Annie’s meek nature gives way to something darker and more foreboding . . . something like obsession. And, as Paul’s sense of dread and fear grows, the audience is right there with him. The growing, gripping slow-build terror is one of production’s greatest strengths, and Tao Wang’s eerie lighting effects create some of the same tension that can be found in King’s novel.
Like Paul, viewers become trapped in this clever psychological cat and mouse game, but unlike him, they won’t long for an escape. Instead, the sharp sounds, unsetting music, and tense direction (Jeffrey Meanza) keep them engaged and on the edge of their seats from the first somber moments to the chilling end.
All of this horror unfolds inside of McKay Coble’s brilliant revolving set, which becomes less cozy and more sinister with every scene. Drably decorated and mildly depressing, the set serves as a diorama of Annie’s world and Paul’s unlikely prison. It also rotates at will, slowly revealing more of Annie’s life and creating a frenzied, frightening moving effect whenever Paul moves through the home in search of escape.
Speaking of Paul, Kenzler plays him to perfection. His Paul is funny, intelligent, and incredibly likable—not an easy feat given his circumstances. Yet, Kenzler makes the humor feel natural and creates a character viewers will want to root for . . . although, at Tuesday night’s performance, Gibson’s Annie had some fans of her own. Though she is undoubtedly the show’s villain, Gibson plays her in a way that’s both terrifying and hilarious. One has to simultaneously admire her ingenuity and detest her evil, selfish intentions. Plus, Gibson’s sweet, beguiling face is the perfect mask for this complex character.
Only one other person ever steps foot on stage in the two-hour runtime, and that’s Buster (Adam Valentine), a small-town cop who’s determined to save the day. Though Valentine’s onstage moments are few, his no-nonsense demeanor and careful delivery prove he has what it takes to keep up with his gifted co-stars. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that William Goldman’s characters (based on King’s characters) are fully realized and fleshed-out. That type of writing, paired with this type of acting, is a perfect storm, one that results in a horror-filled night of both fun and fear.
What’s most terrifying of all is that viewers are asked, from the moment they step through the doors, to contemplate their own Wilkes-style obsessions. In the lobby, guests fill labeled glass jars with marbles to indicate their preferred “fandoms.” What seems a harmless, fun activity going in feels much different coming out. This script, just like the original novel and the 1990 film, asks us to reflect on our own allegiances and even on our own investment in this fictional story. Chances are, if we’re honest, we’ll find that maybe we’re not so different from Annie after all. This show simply asks us where we draw the line and cautions us to keep a careful grip on reality.
Perfect for spooky season and for some careful contemplation, PlayMakers’ Misery is a can't-miss hit. Even better, it runs through Halloween night. Tickets are available here.
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