Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s MISERY is a production facing many challenges even before it begins, at least in my mind. Stephen King’s “Misery” is a great American novel. The film is on my top ten favorite movies of all time. Kathy Bates performance is iconic; it’s hard to get her voice, mannerisms, and deeply disturbed presence out of your mind. And the action is confined largely to a bedroom, with two characters; it needs to feel claustrophobic. So, Blake Robison, the director of the show and the Artistic Director of the Playhouse decided to stage the show in the huge Marx Theater – definitely not a claustrophobic space.
And yet, it all works – and works well. The full theatre reacted with shock to many of the surprises (though the script is very loyal to the film . . . perhaps people have forgotten or just never saw it?).
To recap: Paul Sheldon, a famous romance novelist, wrecks during a snowstorm but is rescued by nurse (and self-professed “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes. Annie’s fan-girling turns from charming to creepy pretty quickly. And that’s when the show starts the slow burn to the chilling finale.
The tension is present throughout the production and all of the technical elements. Despite the large space, Paul Shortt’s set is intimate, but also monumental. It’s full of detail, rustic, and gorgeous. Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design and compositions help build suspense and give the production the punch it needs. Xavier Pierce’s lighting equally keeps track of time while keeping things tense when necessary. Kathleen Geldard captures the essence of Annie perfectly in her costumes. Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet, fight choreographers and special effects coordinators, have their work cut out for them. I don’t want to give away anything but there is some wonderful stage magic at work throughout the production. The duo succeeds in their job. The way Robison keeps the pace moving despite a largely stationary actor demonstrates his skill as a director.
Robison has cast Barbara Chisholm, the woman we last saw as the sweet, wise, and witty Erma Bombeck in Cincinnati, in the role of “Annie.” There are traces of Chisholm’s “Erma” here, which only serves to make her “Annie” that much more terrifying. Her unpredictable mood swings are both subtle and underplayed, but believable. Walking the line between humorous and evil, both the play and the performance satisfy on both fronts. It has to be daunting to play this character, so familiar to fans of the film, but Chisholm is bold in her choices, especially in Act Two.
Playing author “Paul Sheldon” is David Whalen, who’s progression from bewildered to terrified to rage-filled is mesmerizing. It’s a classic performance and I hope audiences recognize how good he is in contrast to the powerful character he plays opposite of. Kenneth Early rounds out the cast as a local sheriff, who slowly figures things out – but not soon enough.
MISERY is not going to change the world. There’s no message here, really, at least not a revolutionary one. But what this cast and crew have done is given audiences a night of escapism, suspense, and entertainment. On opening night, Robison expressed that there was indeed violence in the production – and while it is “pretend,” we shouldn’t and can’t ignore the very real violence of earlier in day at Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati. It was a sincere and important comment to recognize the day’s tragedy; I, for one, was glad for the entertaining distraction and excellent production.
MISERY is not to be missed and runs through September 29th at the Playhouse in the Park. Click here for more information.