Misery: more like a bad cold

Playing Annie, Lucia Frangione attacks Andrew McNee's Paul with a sledgehammer in Misery.

Despite internally consistent performances from Andrew McNee and Lucia Frangione, the Arts Club’s production of Misery fails to hit home(Photo by David Cooper)

The Arts Club’s production of Misery is a journey straight to heck and back.

It’s not scary, which is a flaw in a thriller.

William Goldman, who wrote the play, also penned the screenplay for the1990 movie. Both are based on a book by Stephen King. In the story, a romance novelist named Paul Sheldon has just finished a more artistically ambitious—possibly pretentious—manuscript, when his car careens off the side of a mountain during a Colorado snowstorm. Suffering a dislocated shoulder and severely broken legs, he is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse, who takes him back to her house in the woods, tends to his injuries, and declares herself his number-one fan.

Annie promises to get Paul to a hospital the moment the roads clear, but it soon becomes apparent that she’s obsessed and she plans to keep him captive. When Annie discovers that Paul has killed off her favourite character, she becomes enraged—and psychotically sadistic. A whole lot of the “entertainment” in Misery derives from the suffering that she inflicts on Paul.

But significant moments of that suffering come in the form of physical torture and, in the theatre, where artifice is apparent, it’s hard to make attacks with blunt weapons effective. The theatre is a better place to present psychological torture but, to present that effectively, you need a nuanced script, which Goldman doesn’t provide. And Lucia Frangione, who’s playing Annie here, doesn’t have the advantage of the close-ups that that helped Kathy Bates to win an Oscar for her work in the movie.

Perhaps by default, director Rachel Ditor and her company lean into the comic aspect of Grand Guignol. From her first entrance, Frangione is energetically nuts. One of the first things I wrote in my notebook is that her Annie is a “butch, enthusiastic clown.” And she gets a laugh early on when she says, “I was so relieved when I heard your first scream.” Frangione’s performance doesn’t allow us to think, even for a moment, that Paul might be safe with this woman.

And, although he makes Paul’s pain squirm-inducingly realistic, Andrew McNee also invents laughs—in the way his character reacts to a caricature that’s been drawn of him, for instance.

Don’t get me wrong: Frangione and McNee are both excellent actors and there’s an admirable thoroughness to their characterizations. In and of themselves, these portraits are whole—and they serve the tone of the production. My point is that the material itself is shallow and that the angle that director Ditor has taken flattens the theatrical experience further. As a result, the basic dynamic—Annie’s always crazy, Paul’s always in trouble—starts to feel awfully repetitive.

For me, one of the most successful elements of this mounting is Lauchlin Johnston’s set. Johnston fills the proscenium with a big, wall-papered wall. It’s pinkish, and the pattern is delicately feminine. But doors, rooms, and other features emerge from the wall like solid objects emerging from flesh. It’s creepy. It feels like Annie’s house is haunted. And that’s the most unnerving thing about this production of Misery.

MISERY By William Goldman. Based on the novel by Stephen King. Directed by Rachel Ditor. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Granville Island Stage Wednesday, April 11. Continues until May 5.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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