Diabolical ‘Misery’ awaits your company in Braddock

By Sharon Eberson

Some of the best edge-of-your-seat moments within the Misery unfolding in Braddock are wordless. Without the inner monologue of page or screen, through often excruciating actions and silent suffering, the dread that fills barebones production’s intimate blackbox theater is palpable.

There’s madness in Misery, too, and it manifests in lightning-fast, sunshine-to-storm moods expressed by Sheila McKenna. And in David Whalen‘s bruised and battered Paul Sheldon, there is pain. Oh, the pain!

And that’s just part of the devilish fun – if you can call imprisonment, torture, and cruelty fun – in watching these two veteran Pittsburgh actors serve and volley Stephen King‘s story of deranged fan Annie Wilkes (McKenna), who kidnaps her favorite author, Paul Sheldon (Whalen), and forces him to write a sequel in her series.

That is a mild way of stating the horrific violence perpetrated by Annie, who is quick to remind Paul, “I am your No. 1 fan.”

Misery has many takeaways, from its first incarnation as a 1987 novel, then a popular 1990 movie that earned Kathy Bates an Oscar, and the play that reached Broadway in 2015. Among the strongest themes derived from the physical and mental violence of the story are the pitfalls of celebrity and the rabbit hole of fanaticism.

King, however, said in an interview with Rolling Stone that the character of Annie Wilkes was a metaphor for his cocaine addiction at the time, eating away at him. The drugs do their worst from the inside out, while Wilkes’ method is bodily harm.
Annie’s hero-worship of author Paul only wanes and comes to blows when he decides to go in a direction that threatens her favorite character, Misery Chastain. The heroine is as real – perhaps more real – to Annie than her flesh-and-blood creator.

The bloody, bone-crushing violence of the book has been tamped down a bit for the stage, adapted by William Goldman (an Oscar winner for All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) from his screenplay.

Live and up close in the intimate barebones blackbox theater, the physical violence can be shocking and a release when it finally happens, with the build-up, so thoroughly imbued with the injured author’s dread.

You would think that a role that calls for an actor to spend much of his time in bed is less physically taxing than most, but don’t tell that to Whalen, who is onstage almost constantly. We meet his Paul Sheldon, unconscious and bedridden, seemingly rescued by Wilkes after a car crash in a blizzard. The near-death experience has left him unable to walk or use his right arm.

When he awakens, Paul is at first grateful to Wilkes, a seemingly offbeat but benign nurse. She tells him that the snow has cut off all communication from her remote house, located not far from the lodge where Paul is known to go to complete his novels.

With a smile that will soon turn sinister, McKenna’s Annie will remind him often that she is his savior and expects unconditional gratitude. When she believes she has an ax to grind with Paul, he can’t run, and he can’t hide.

A visceral sense of dread starts to dawn on Paul as he realizes that Annie is his captor and that she will go tgol any lengths to save her beloved character. As she forces him to write a sequel that meets her approval, she tells him, “I know you are a good man.” And she will ensure that he is as good as she knows he can be by any means necessary.

Eventually, when Annie must head out for supplies, Paul does his best to get away from her clutches. And that’s when we witness Whalen making his move toward the door, in a palpable display of agony, and later, in a wheelchair, navigating the masterful turntable set devised by Tony Ferrieri.

No words are necessary as Whalen’s urgency is heightened by the movement of the set.

Ferrieri’s design is a marvel. It spreads a relatively tiny stage into a bedroom, kitchen, hallway, and porch, the latter where Paul’s captor deceives the sheriff (James Howard), there to inquire about the missing author.

With lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski and technical direction by Doug McDermott, the set is an active player in the fast-paced thriller. Misery is directed by barebones’ Patrick Jordan, who has waited since March 9, 2020, to see patrons back in seats in his Braddock theater.

Being so close to the actors can magnify the shock value of the action tenfold. Not every punch, so to speak, lands perfectly – as if they all could without doing real damage. From such close range, though, those that do, including at least one with Steve Tolin‘s Tolin Effects, are certainly gasp-worthy.

From the reaction on opening night, even the most telegraphed of the horrors inflicted in the diabolical plot lands with a bang.

Whalen’s path to Misery can be traced to his long history of stage collaborations with director Jordan and previously starring in the play at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The versatile actor has portrayed dozens of disparate roles for barebones and on other Pittsburgh stages, but rarely as physically and mentally vulnerable as Paul Sheldon finds himself.

Whalen and McKenna, another multi-talented Pittsburgh actor, shared a stage at City Theatre in 2012 in David Greig’s quirky dramedy The Monster in the Hall. More like, The Monster in the Thrall here, with McKenna’s twisted Wilkes dispensing pain with a smile and Whalen’s sense of dread so palpable, it infects all who watch him suffer for nearly 90 minutes, with a short break for everyone to catch their collective breaths.

Before landing at barebones, the play has had a rough history, including a relatively short Broadway run with Laurie Metcalf as Annie and Bruce Willis making his Broadway debut as Paul. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley complained that the thrills and chills and, in particular, the sense of dread were lacking in that production. But have no fear, or rather, be afraid. Be very afraid.

If it’s a diabolical Stephen King plot with a sense of dread and bursts of violence you are looking for, Misery welcomes your company in Braddock.

Misery is at barebones productions’ blackbox theater, 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock, through June 5. Every evening performance includes a paid pop-up bar with cocktails from Lo Bar and snacks by Black Radish. There will also be a brunch buffet for the first three Sunday matinees (May 15, 22, and 29), with cocktails from Lo Bar and the buffet by Black Radish.

Tickets, COVID protocols, and more: https://www.barebonesproductions.com/misery

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