by Stephen King, adapted by Simon Moore
Theatre New Brunswick
Some people sneered when they heard that Theatre New Brunswick was doing a Stephen King story. I didn't. Stephen King's work isn't all schlock -- and even if it were, great theatre has often drawn on sources that were pretty thin. Shakespeare, for instance, often based his plays on stories that were the Elizabethan equivalent of Stephen King: popular, commercial, exciting, gross.
But on the other hand, it's clear that Misery brings with it the associations with TV and movies that desperate theatre companies often hope will lure in audiences otherwise unlikely to come to the theatre. If any writer is "bankable," as they say in the film industry, it's Stephen King.
And his Misery looks like a pretty good idea for the stage: it's focused on two characters locked together in a situation with lots of dramatic potential. Many great classic plays have turned on similar situations. And you can see why it would interest a writer: it's an exploration of how every writer and reader are eternally trapped together, struggling for power.
As almost everybody knows, in King's story the writer is Paul Sheldon, superstar author of Gothic romances, who is seriously injured in an accident in a remote area. The reader is Annie Wilks, his "number one fan," who rescues and victimizes him, desperately trying to control, to possess, the author of the books that have, in a fundamental way, been her life. In the world that is most real for Annie, Sheldon, its author, is God: that she should try to destroy him in order to possess him is a story that's not unfamiliar to most people.
In the novel, King explores at some depth the relationship between storyteller and audience. The teller depends on an audience, of course, so the audience has the power at first; but on the other hand the teller's ability to decide what happens next -- to offer or withhold the gratification the audience comes to depend on -- shifts the power back. Misery, in short, isn't the sort of simple pop shocker that King's reputation might lead you to expect.
So it's not surprising that Theatre New Brunswick was able to find some depth to explore in the script. And even though the stage adaptation, by Simon Moore, cuts out many of the complexities that made the original ambiguous and rich, it plays as a pretty effective grotesque comedy.
The considerable resources of Theatre New Brunswick and the Playhouse are used to good effect in this exploration. In fact, the real star of the show may well be Patrick Clarke's imaginative and powerful set. At first glance it's a wonderful, claustrophobic trap of a room, its walls leaning in as though about to close down on the hapless, crippled victim. As the evening develops, though, we discover that it's on a revolving platform which carries the whole house. As the increasingly desperate Sheldon escapes from the room where he's imprisoned, each time he goes to a new room it simply swings around toward us as he enters it -- a powerful image of entrapment.
Similarly, the Playhouse's sound system is used extensively and imaginatively. In this case, though, I wasn't quite so convinced that it served the production well. Much of the "mood music" during the blackouts between scenes seemed very cinematic. The blackouts were just a little too long -- they reminded us of TV or cinema, but in those cases, of course, they can be much quicker because they don't have to allow for changes in the set. Here, the sound of helicopters searching for the lost Sheldon, or the spooky music, often felt like filler, giving the stagehands time to move props.
Compensating for this is the fact that both roles are played by thoroughly competent, powerful actors. The last time we saw C. David Johnson at TNB was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and it's clear he's matured as a stage actor since then. Although when he first appeared I thought he might be doing an impression of James Caan (who had the part in the film of Misery), he managed to make the fairly monotonous role engaging, and even exciting. For most of the first act, his responses to Annie's overwhelming, perverse, and dogged devotion are a kind of bemused astonishment, which would wear thin pretty quickly if he hadn't found ways to signal it other than by an elegant raising of his left eyebrow. In the second act -- particularly in the scenes where Annie's trying to dictate the sort of writing she wants him to do -- he was often captivating.
The play, of course, belongs to the character of Annie (it's no accident that Kathy Bates won an Oscar for the role in the movie), and Deborah Lobban did a powerful, effective job of portraying the erratic and threatening looniness of the lonely reader whose psychotic dreams become reality. If we didn't get much sense of the development or coherence of her madness, it wasn't her fault. Moore's script doesn't allow for much subtlety or development.
In part this is because it leaves out almost all of the world outside the isolated house where the action occurs. Although it's obviously necessary, in order to bring the story onto the stage, it means that we have little sense of just how plausible Annie looks to outsiders, or exactly how Paul Sheldon's writing fits into his life or the world. This claustrophobic focus makes the action seem, perhaps, even more grotesque than it did in the novel or in the film made from it.
John Dryden pointed out, back in the seventeenth century, that when characters died on stage an audience was likely to laugh. He thought the way to escape that problem was the classic one -- to have such things happen off stage. In the twentieth century, though, we tend to use that ambiguous and repressed laughter the way Shakespeare sometimes did, to emphasize the grotesque. This production used that strategy regularly: often, the audience's laughter was choked back as a realization dawned that what seemed funny was actually appalling, or vice versa. This use of the grotesque is typical of Stephen King, in fact, and any production of his work faces the challenge of walking a tightrope between laughter and nausea.
If this production tilts the balance, it's toward laughter -- it's more a grotesque comedy than a serious excursion into paranoia and fear. (At the one moment of real, movie-style terror, the audience laughed almost immediately.)
Is it good theater? Yes, engaging, even engrossing; a focused evening's entertainment.
Is it any more than that? Unfortunately, I don't think so. There are important ideas tossed up for consideration -- about the eternal power struggle between writer and reader; about our human desire to possess what we love, even when possession means destruction; about the power of story to create a world. But, finally, the script tosses them away and returns to Paul Sheldon accepting an award for the book he wrote under Annie's domination -- a book which has been (quite deliberately) presented as the most appalling sort of trash. As we laugh at the stuff Sheldon produces to satisfy Annie, we lose sympathy for her; as we realize that it's really all he can produce, we develop contempt for him. We're left with, well, not much.
If only the book had been better. If only Moore (and, perhaps, King himself) had had the courage to parody Stephen King's work instead of the ersatz Harlequin that Paul Sheldon writes in the lonely cabin.