Stephen King’s Misery is a writer’s fiendish fantasy/nightmare, spiked with dark humor. The protagonist, Paul Sheldon, is the author of a series of romance novels set in 19th century England recounting the adventures of Misery Chastain. Following a serious car crash in the Colorado winter, Paul wakes to discover that Annie Wilks, a registered nurse, has rescued him from the wreckage, and brought him to her home. Annie tells him that she is his “number one fan”. Touching on issues of the distinction between “serious” and “popular” literature, and the complex relationship and interdependence between writer and reader, Misery is a taut psychological thriller. An enticing tale, King’s novel, published in 1987, was adapted into a film in 1990, directed by Rob Reiner, with a screenplay by William Goldman. Goldman subsequently wrote a stage version of King’s novel, that premiered on Broadway in 2015. The Cameri Theatre production of Goldman’s play is translated and directed by Irad Rubinstein, and features Keren Mor as Annie Wilks, and Yuval Segal as Paul Sheldon.
Misery depicts an extreme situation, and evoking its tensions and terror onstage presents an extreme challenge. It’s essentially a two-hander, with just a few very brief appearances of Shoham Shiner as the town sheriff. Of those two, Paul Sheldon, is a primarily reactive role. Severely injured and confined to a bed, the actor’s range of possibilities is limited. To complicate matters more, in the first part of the play, Sheldon’s head is bandaged, thus obscuring his facial expressions. The choice of media critically affects the impact of the work. In the cinema, the camera offers many options, such as close-ups and camera angles, that not only make the most nuanced expressions visible, but also work to subliminally affect the emotions of the viewer. Onstage, the director and actors must find different means.
The set design (Polina Adamov) is so excellently conceived that it practically functions as a character in the play. Hundreds of crumpled papers create a snowy landscape onstage, and a carefully beat-up trailer stands in the middle of the Colorado emptiness. Annie’s trailer home evokes the isolation and claustrophobia, while the use of paper (I am not entirely sure of the material, but its appearance suggests paper), which is further developed as the play reaches its climax, is a powerful enhancement of the play’s themes. The design of the trailer also enables different views of the action. This is employed to great dramatic effect in a scene where Paul, whom Annie, in a rare moment has left alone in the trailer, attempts to get out of bed. His actions are viewed from the outside of the trailer, seen through the window. The voyeuristic effect heightens the tension, and the drama, as his desperate act is literally framed by the window, his hand grasping at the glass as he falls.
Mor and Segal are both accomplished actors and convey their roles well, yet the play never reaches the heights of intensity that one associates with Stephen King. In part, this is due to the uneasy alliance of comedy and suspense. There are several funny moments (as enthusiastically attested by laughter from the audience), such as when Annie happily recites the over-the-top titles of all 8 of Sheldon’s bodice-rippers. Keren Mor is an excellent actor and her comic delivery is impeccable. Yet as the play reveals that beneath Annie’s amiable altruistic exterior lies a depth of psychosis, despite an intellectual awareness of the danger, one rarely feels the terror.
Misery is a work that is deeply involved with the imagination, and the highlights of this production, in this writer’s opinion, are those places where there is a departure from realism to the more fanciful vistas of the imagination. The physical presence of Annie’s pet pig Misery is the perfect visual counterpoint to the plot, with a terrific design whose full impact is revealed only towards the end. Yet another effective image is the replication of Annie’s figure, with her hooded red coat, in the form of two actors (Natasha Mantel Gurislavetz and Yarden Shai) who appear briefly, yet memorably in a few scenes. This trifecta of Annies is wonderfully creepy. One cannot help but feel that a tighter connection between the real and surreal, revealing more of the inner feelings of the characters, a heightening of the bizarre in the service of meaning, would take this entertaining production to a higher level.