top of page

REVIEW: MISERY — Camino Real Playhouse, San Juan Capistrano

It is a daunting thing to attempt to transform a famous novel, which was also turned into a famous movie, into something on the stage.


OCTOBER 27, 2023—SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO


Based on one of Stephen King’s most terrifying novels about an obsessive super-fan named Annie Wilkes (who brings renowned novelist Paul Sheldon to her isolated, Colorado gothic farmhouse after a car crash in deepest, darkest winter) was made even more well-known after Kathy Bates and James Caan gave memorable performances three years later in the 1990 film. Who can forget Bates’ chilling performance that made an unassuming looking middle-aged woman scare the daylights out of everyone? It was a horrifying psychological thriller, no monsters or ghosts required. So, how can you top that in a stage performance?

Well, you have to get a playwright’s playwright and a very astute director. Directed with white knuckles by Dan Blackley, the stage adaptation is by William Goldman (of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Princess Bride” fame), who also did the screenplay for the film. The ingeniously diabolical setup remains the same: It’s dead of winter, 1987, and Paul, the best-selling author of serial period romances penned around a beautiful orphan named Misery, awakens from a car crash in snowy rural Colorado to find himself held captive in a guest room in the house of a raving fan who intends to keep him there until death do them part.


Christopher Vournas, Hillary Pearson and Rob Harryman star in the Camino Real Playhouse production of MISERY.

That fan is a plum role for actress Hillary Pearson (“I Hate Hamlet;” 15 yrs. Director – Tri School Theatre) who relishes scenery for dinner: the aw-shucks, wholesome homicidal maniac Annie Wilkes, a onetime nurse for whom the instincts to love and to kill are dangerously intertwined. A bit blathering, somewhat implacable and impenetrable, she’s a figure destined to show up in your nightmares.


Ms. Pearson is able to create a life-warped, love-starved figure who, while psychologically persuasive, is not all that daunting…until her “Mr. Hyde” comes out. She seems more vulnerable than the screen Annie was, but Mr. Goldman’s script has also erased much of Annie’s grisly back story, which included evidence of a double-digit roster of earlier victims.


Though still subject to wild mood swings (can you say sadomasochistic?) and a predilection for torturing her adored house guest, Ms. Pearson’s Annie is rather touching when the suave Paul pretends to pay court to her in the hope of facilitating his escape. And it did not seem inappropriate that when Paul finally landed a blow on his demented captor, I heard someone in the audience murmur, “Awww,” as if he had just kicked a kitten.


Rob Harryman ("Matilda") portrays Paul Sheldon, a wisecracking, sleepily charming stoic who occasionally flinches or roars when he is subjected to severe pain, but never, ever lets us see that he might be afraid. Even when he’s strapped to a bed, with both his legs broken. Even while our deranged psychopath (who wields a mean mallet) hovers over him with a hypodermic needle; even then, we never doubt that good old Paul Sheldon — will prevail.


As he wakes up from his coma in excruciating pain and tries to take stock: He was Paul Sheldon, who wrote novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers. He had been married and divorced twice. He smoked too much (or had before all this, whatever "all this" was). Something very bad had happened to him, but he was still alive.


What had happened, it gradually dawns on Paul, is that he had been out celebrating the completion of a different kind of novel, having finally put an end to his best-selling Misery series by killing off its heroine, Misery Chastain. He had gotten high on champagne, gone driving in a Colorado snowstorm, skidded on a mountainside, and flipped his car.


Now Mr. Man is in bed in a farmhouse somewhere. His legs are smashed and screaming with pain. He is being nursed by a powerful, blank-gazed woman, who feeds him drugs periodically to kill the pain. The woman introduces herself as Annie Wilkes, the No. 1 fan of his Misery series. She found him in his wreck, recognized him and brought him home to her remote farmhouse. She doesn't like the manuscript she found in his traveling bag. It's confusing and the language is profane. She's also extremely upset about the death of her heroine, Misery, and wants Paul to write a book bringing her back to life.


In fact, she insists on it. Now this situation might seem to have the makings of a comedy, but in William Goldman's hands, it's a spine-chilling potboiler. With mounting anxiety, Paul realizes that he can't use his legs and that he's hooked on pain-killers, completely cut off from civilization and wholly dependent on this rather peculiar woman, who, to punish him for his profane language makes him wash down his pills with the soapy water she's just used to clean his room, and then forces him to burn his only copy of the manuscript.


Bit by bit, he comes to understand that Annie Wilkes is not only peculiar but ''dangerously crazy.'' He will have to write a new Misery book just to save his life. On the other hand, she'll probably kill him as soon as he finishes. So, he must extend that time as long as he can.


It's an oppressive, claustrophobic portrait of an egotistic writer pushed to the edge of madness by pain, pills, incarceration, the expectations of his reading public and a deadline like he’s never known before. In the play, our hero is as threatened by the demons within as he is by the madwoman beside his bed. Like him, you the audience member, can’t wait to escape; yet you can no more walk away from Mr. Goldman's tightly spun yarn than Paul can walk away from his captor.


Unlike the movie, the play stays entirely in Annie’s house and yard. Darrell Hill has designed a realistic set for the Wilkes homestead, a folksy self-contained world that is inhabited, for the most part, by only Mr. Harryman and Ms. Pearson, though there is a third character, a sacrificial cop named Buster, played by Christopher Vournas ("Something Rotten!"), who is investigating the case.


The portrait Ms. Pearson draws of this madwoman is diabolical. She's exquisitely logical yet altogether unpredictable. One minute Paul Sheldon is the man and writer of her dreams, the next minute he is just a “dirty birdy” who needs to be punished for killing off her favorite character, doing the most unthinkable acts of violent punishment. We, too, feel the suffocation of the room and the sinking feeling that there is no way out.


The acting is excellent and the characters are complex. Mr. Vournas adds balance to the narrative as tritagonist Sheriff Buster. The character never appeared in the King novel, but was created for the film and carried over to the stage production. Mr. Harryman is perfectly sarcastic and ironic when needed—watching him play the game of appeasing a psycho is riveting.


With Ms. Pearson, we see a lonely, isolated woman who has lost her mother, and lives for fiction. Yes, she is totally bonkers, but we have moments of sympathy for her anyway. How can we not, with her postures of defeat, her simple jumper dresses, her humble shoes, her heroin-level addiction to fiction. She is the walking caveat for what can happen when someone has no real love: they have to imagine it, or go to violent extremes to force it.


These performances have guts. You will laugh, you will wince, and you will wonder how such terrible things can be so darkly and deliciously comic. From veiled insults in witty dialogue, to amped up intrigue, “Misery” is actually a cross between a delight and a suspense thriller.


This production of “Misery” has two casts which perform alternately on the following dates: October 20-22 and November 3-5 stars Rich Hutchison as Paul Sheldon, Kathryn Leyes Fischer as Annie Wilkes and Jereme Haley as Buster; October 27-29, October 31, and November 10-12 stars Rob Harryman as Paul Sheldon, Hillary Pearson as Annie Wilkes and Christopher Vournas as Buster. Off-stage voices are Brianne Pusztai, Marge Packman and Dan Blackley.


Directed by Dan Blackley; Stage Managed by Brianne Pusztai; Scenic Design by Darrell Hill; Costume Design by Brigitte Harper. Artistic Director/President Leslie Eisner; Managing Director Darrell Hill.


Camino Real Playhouse presents: MISERY, Now Playing through November 5th. Performances are 7:30PM, Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays. 31776 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano CA 92675. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. For Ticket information, call (949) 489-8082 or visit https://caminorealplayhouse.org/


And please….it’s general admission, so try not to sit in the cockadoody splash zone!




Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report









Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page