Here we are just a few days after Valentine’s Day, a Hallmark holiday that not everyone finds so happy. Does the thought of all those cutesy Valentine couples snuggling over champagne and diamond earrings make you want to strangle Cupid (that chubby little bastard) and maybe, shatter his wings with a sledgehammer? Maybe keep him addicted to hospital-grade pain killers? Then there’s someone you should meet. Her name is Annie Wilkes, and you can see her in the S&M Productions’ performance of Stephen King’s classic horror story Misery now playing at The Crystal Theatre.
While Misery as a cautionary dating tale teaches us such valuable lessons as don’t hobble your date or make them drink dirty rinse water, it is also the story of Paul Sheldon, an arrogant writer of historical bodice-ripper novels, played by Louis Stein, and Annie Wilkes, his self-proclaimed “Number One fan” played by Carrie Ann Mallino. Annie is nursing him back to health after she discovers him in a car wreck. She is an isolated and seemingly innocent country girl whose sole pleasure and solace in life is following the exploits of her favorite heroine Misery Chastain in Paul’s Misery series of novels.
As is often the case in a bad relationship, these two just don’t get each other, as emphasized by some creative spotlight work, as we see Paul’s sarcastic, urban wit contrasted with Annie’s demented simplicity. From the first utterance of her infamous ‘cockadoody’ we begin to see her darker side emerge. She is a cruel and petulant child inhabiting a large woman’s body, the bossy older sister left in charge while the adults are away. Her innocence is in part what makes her so menacing, because anyone with the physical power of an adult and the black-and-white mindset of a child can convince themselves of the rightness of anything. Paul is pathetic in his pain, whimpering and feeble, yet at first we don’t feel much sympathy for him, due in part to his longshoreman’s vocabulary and cynically slick manner.
Annie’s growing instability becomes full-blown insanity when she buys a copy of Paul’s latest Misery novel, in which Misery dies. Mallino gives a powerful performance, howling in disbelief, making us feel Annie’s genuine anguish at the loss of her favorite heroine. She leaves him for several days, and Paul’s torment on being left alone is moving as he cries out on the darkened stage. Annie returns from her twisted vision quest with a newfound purpose: to help (or make) Paul write a new novel in which Misery lives again.
She appears again on Christmas Day, absurd in her giant pink housecoat and slippers. We see her childlike excitement as she gives Paul a typewriter so he can begin writing his new novel. Stein does a great job of showing Paul’s urgency and desperation as he simultaneously develops his plan to free himself and becomes inspired to write. Throughout the play Paul’s arrogance gets stripped away as his body and mind deteriorate. He undergoes a kind of catharsis; through Annie’s torture and his addiction to pain killers he becomes desperate and cunning, the trappings of the outside world becoming meaningless in the face of his plus-sized tormentor. The Christmas morning scene is where Stein really makes us feel Paul’s newfound vulnerability, and we begin to not only sympathize with his suffering, but also to empathize with his humanity.
Annie tells Paul about her childhood trips to the movies and her fear for the safety of the hero and we can almost see her fidgeting, awaiting the outcome. Mallino successfully conveys Annie’s anxiety and creates a sense of her as a wounded child with a worldview seemingly informed by the Bible and DC comic books.
Paul’s power grows despite his weakened physical state as he writes his novel; when he threatens to withhold the outcome she becomes lost and panicky. He uses her manic impatience to manipulate her, and ultimately her need to know what happens to Misery is what distracts her from his plan to free himself. The tension builds throughout the play, culminating in a satisfyingly violent climax. John Sporman’s original music is simple and haunting as skillfully performed on the cello by Madeleine Mussmann. The music creates an eerie feeling as the house lights dim, raising our proverbial hackles in anticipation of the creepiness to come.
King examines some complex themes in this story: author as character, private versus public personae, and the process of writing itself. And while the more gruesome elements of the story are artfully represented in this performance, we never really get a sense of King’s psychological complexity. Paul’s anguish when he is forced to burn the manuscript, for example, feels more like the reaction of someone who has learned that his roommate drank his last beer than the terror of a writer whose manuscript has been destroyed.
The strength of the overall performance, however, outweighs any specific shortcomings. So if you’re looking for a remedy to all that sickeningly sweet Valentine’s Day sludge, go see Annie. Just don’t make her mad. “When I get mad,” she says, “I get, you know, oogy.”
Misery runs Feb. 17–19 at 8 PM at The Crystal Theatre, with a special midnight performance Saturday, Feb. 19. Tickets cost $10. Call 542-0638 for more info.