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Everybody's a critic

THEATER: "Misery" 

Everybody's a critic

Full disclosure: I have never read Stephen King's "Misery," nor have I seen the film version of it. But I'm familiar with the story, and was excited to hear that Blackfriars would be producing the stage adaptation for its current season. It's a work custom-made for the theater - two meaty characters, basically one setting, lots of suspense, and a couple of "how are they going to pull that off?" moments. By and large, Blackfriars does a very good job with the piece, with just a couple of opening-night bumps disturbing an otherwise engaging, absorbing psychological thriller.

"Misery" tells the story of writer Paul Sheldon (Derric Neal), who has won fame and fortune through his series of best-selling romance novels. After picking up an award for his most recent book, Paul heads to a secluded hotel in the Colorado mountains with the plan of whiling away the winter writing his Great American Novel. Shades of "The Shining," no doubt, but Paul isn't driven mad by a demonic hotel; instead he's driven off the road due to a snowstorm and too much booze. He suffers a terrible car wreck and is rescued by retired nurse Annie Wilkes (Vicki Casarett), who he quickly realizes is both his biggest fan and worst nightmare.

Annie tends to Paul, specifically giving him the pain medication he needs to cope with the agony caused by mangled legs, which have left him bedridden. But Annie also snuck a peek at Paul's new novel and, well, she doesn't like it one bit. It's full of curses, jumps about in time, and worst of all, has nothing to do with Misery, the protagonist of Paul's romance novels, a character Annie identifies with perhaps a little too much. On top of being a retired nurse, she's apparently also a budding literary critic - and a practicing psychotic. Annie proceeds to torment Paul into writing a new book, and whenever Paul rebels or sets off one of Annie's many emotional triggers, she teaches him the true meaning of misery all over again, in increasingly horrifying ways.

Blackfriars' production has a lot working in its favor. The set is remarkable; designer John Haldoupis has recreated the entire first floor of Annie's farmhouse, spread out across the stage, filled with all sorts of interesting appointments. He also cleverly depicts the car crash that leaves Paul at Annie's mercy.

Neal has the less showy part in Paul, our point-of-view character. The role doesn't really call for that much - he basically has to react to each new horror visited upon him by his "savior" - but Neal brings unexpected depth. By the play's end, Paul's grasp on his sanity is nearly as loose as his captor's, and Neal does a fantastic job relaying his descent into madness.

Conversely, Casarett has huge expectations to live up to after Kathy Bates' iconic turn as the character in the 1990 screen version. She doesn't quite make it. Casarett excels at bouncing between Annie's vast emotional spectrum; she convincingly swings from giggling, fawning fan to ax-wielding maniac in the snap of a finger. She plays Annie with an underlying childlike mentality that makes her all the more creepy; you wonder what must have happened in this woman's youth to leave her so emotionally stunted and filled with rage.

Unfortunately, on opening night Casarett repeatedly tripped over her lines throughout the play. There didn't appear to be major errors, but she would start a line, then stop, correct herself, and say it all over again. And while she did a good job hitting the lowest of the lows, her emotional highs - the moments of utter, terrifying mania - weren't all that high. That might have been a deliberate directorial choice, since it's so easy to go overboard with a role like Annie's. But at times it seemed as if she was holding back, and that doesn't seem true to the character to me.

A couple of other technical issues cropped up - some pre-recorded narration played at the beginning of a wrong scene; the wrong book jacket was projected on a scrim at the end; the rattling of the pill bottle in Annie's sweater proved a constant distraction - but this show does its job, and it does it well. You genuinely feel scared for the man on the stage, and wonder how he'll escape a seemingly inescapable situation. (On that note, the ending doesn't completely satisfy.) It's a taut psychological thriller.

Misery

Through March 29

Blackfriars Theatre

28 Lawn St | 454-1260 | blackfriars.org

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