The Tone of 'Misery' at Great Lakes Theater is a Mystery 

click to enlarge stage-glt021518813.jpg

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Some years ago, I referred to Andrew May's performance in the Great Lakes Theater production of Love's Labours Lost as a "walking orgasm." He invested his character Armado with such squirmy physical sexuality that you couldn't take your eyes off him, and he was hilarious.

So it's wonderful news that May, who has pursued other acting opportunities in the ensuing years, is back on the GLT stage a dozen years later. Unfortunately this irrepressibly physical actor has been confined to a bed where he lies virtually motionless. He plays the battered novelist Paul Sheldon in this rendition of Misery, a script written by William Goldman based on the novel by Stephen King, which was then turned into a movie.

Sheldon wakes up in the guest bedroom of the reclusive Annie Wilkes, after she found his car crashed in a snowy ditch near her isolated ramshackle cottage in the woods. Once she recognized the badly injured driver as her favorite author, she dragged him back to her house where, as a former nurse, she can help him heal. And where she can keep him captive to her primary whim, which is forcing Paul to write, against his will, another of his formulaic Misery Chastain novels she loves so much.

This is the second time in consecutive years that the good folks at GLT have tried to turn a film thriller into a stage play, and let us hope they've gotten that urge out of their system. Last year's Wait Until Dark turned out to be a very long and futile wait, in the dark, for a thrill to appear. And in this production, it's not entirely clear whether director Charles Fee wants us to be scared or amused.

Right from the start, Kathleen Pirkl Tague as Annie spills the beans on the suspense by intoning her signature "I am your No. 1 fan" line with such doom-layered melodrama that it's almost laughable. (Fun idea: If you're sitting at the bar at the rear of the audience, which has a fine view of the stage, line up some shots and slug one every time Annie says, "I'm your No. 1 fan." You'll be on the floor soon.) Adding to the hunch that this is a just-for-laughs hoot are May's droll line readings, a shooting that is more farcical than horrific, and Annie's final Grand Guignol appearance complete with maniacal laughter.

On the other hand, for much of the play it seems we're to take all of this seriously. But to have that work, the tension must be taut. Instead, this version of Misery feels like a 107-minute movie dropped into more than two-and-a-half hours of stage time. As presented on scenic designer Gage Williams' handsome, two-level set (part of the house appears elevated from the downstage-center guest bedroom, but actually is not), the two principal actors are left to flounder while batting Goldman's words back and forth. Indeed, to move from the guest bedroom to the kitchen, the actors have to disappear behind a wall section then reappear and turn a corner. As a result, there is a lot of dead air time (and not "dead" in a scary sense) while the actors move from here to there.

In essence, Misery is a spotlight vehicle for the actor playing Annie, since she is the ambulatory one and controls all the action. As Annie, Tague has some fine isolated moments, particularly when she and Fee decide to underplay some of Annie's more psychotic tendencies. But those well-modulated moments are often subsumed by the overall inconsistent tone. As for the mostly horizontal May, he does what he can from his prone position. But this ain't his play, and it shows.

There is one climactic turning point in the second act, "the scene everyone remembers," that falls flat. Annie, with a sledgehammer in hand, is intent on enforcing her control over Paul. But the ghastly nature of her act is softened by faint-hearted staging: Annie swings the sledge more like a delicate chipping iron than a monster driver. And later, when the local sheriff (Nick Steen) finally discovers captive Paul in the bedroom, Annie goes all Yosemite Sam on his ass, generating more laughter than shock.

Wittingly or not, adaptor Goldman has channeled one of novelist King's worst impulses, a fondness for endless repetition. And that's too bad, because there is actually an interesting concept at the core of this piece: how it is that authors, and artists of all kinds, can be held captive by their fans, forcing them to follow old and popular artistic paths instead of forging new ground. When writers or musicians depart from that well-trodden trail, the backlash can be, well, scary. (See: Bob Dylan's first electric concert, Ricky Nelson's song "Garden Party," and so on.)

Next season, let's hope GLT fills this non-Shakespeare slot in their schedule with an actual top-quality play, written originally for the stage, into which their talented company can sink their teeth.

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