As I recall my reaction to the 1990 film version of Stephen King's novel Misery, I believe I found Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes to be more annoying than threatening, more entertaining than evil. True, the prospect of being trapped in a small remote cabin with that psychopathic fan of romance novelist Paul Sheldon was scary, but I may have felt protected by the knowledge that it was only a movie. At least I wasn't in the same room with her. Until the night of January 10th, 2004.
That's when I saw Simon Moore's stage adaptation of Misery performed by the Pyewacket company in the loft space of Chicago's Bailiwick Arts Center. This space seats only 33 - just large enough for the 20 of us in the audience - and Paul and Annie. The building's rough-hewn exposed A-frame roof beam looks like it was designed for Tom Burch's naturalistic set (and maybe it was). Rough wooden walls, a room divider, a working stovepipe fireplace and the clutter of birdcages and Ball canning jars fill out Annie's Rocky Mountain home. Yep, we were trapped in there along with Paul, for ninety minutes without an intermission, and the sadistic Annie was only a few feet away from us. She entered and exited through the same door we did, and climbed the same set of creaky wooden chairs as us to get to the cabin's front door. We weren't going anywhere without her say-so.
The role of Annie Wilkes put Kathy Bates on the map in 1990, giving her the opportunity for a dark-horse victory over Julia Roberts as Best Actress in that year's Academy Awards. It's a killer of a part, and this production's Annie, Kate Harris, never shies away the inherent risks of recreating her character's manic mood swings from girlishness to ghoulishness, sarcasm to sadism. Ms. Harris appeared to literally bleed in that night's performance - I saw blood on her lip during the curtain call, and it wasn't visible as she struggled with Paul in her final moments on stage. Harris' bravery is visible not only in her acting choices but also in her willingness to be compared with the memory of Ms. Bates Oscar-winning performance. This is a role that can use every ounce of skill an actor can bring to it, and Ms. Harris shows a lot of skill. She isn't as successful as Ms. Bates in letting us see how Annie's sweetness could turn to rage in just a matter of seconds and convincing us that both emotions would be entirely logical and justified to Annie, but she had my heart racing by the end of the show. I was glad to be sitting in the second row and have the first row between us.
Her patient/prisoner Paul Sheldon is played by Mark A. Steel, who manages the physical demands of playing the first third of the play in a prone position, then gradually gaining strength and mobility. He credibly shows Paul's various levels of pain, including the initial pain from his car accident and his withdrawal from addictive medications. Considerably younger than James Caan was when played the Paul in the film version, Steel appears too young to have written so many hit novels, but he works that liability into his character, playing Sheldon as cockier and less mature than Caan's interpretation.
Jared Moore's lighting design uses realistic efforts to add a horror story atmosphere. The working fireplace gives an eerie glow, and at one point a bare lightbulb swinging from an electric cord directs our attention to the "shrine" Annie has constructed for Paul from his news clippings. Credited for "special effects," Brian Sowell has created a way of putting Annie's axe-assisted hobbling of Paul onstage in a way that's as believable as I'd want it to be. It may be a compliment to the overall realism of the production that I noticed a false cover on Annie's paperback copy of Paul's most recent "Misery" novel.
Moore, a British writer whose credits include the original BBC-TV series Traffik that inspired Stephen Soderbergh's film Traffic, has shaped the novel into a terrific two-character vehicle for actors with the guts to attempt it. It was originally produced in London's West End in 1991, starring TV's Sharon Gless (Cagney and Lacey, Queer as Folk) and Bill Paterson. Director David Zak can take credit for a convincing production that takes us literally to the edge of the action and our seats.
Misery is scheduled to run Fridays through Mondays until February 1 at the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, 1229 W Belmont Avenue Chicago. For ticket and performance information, call 773.883.1090 or visit www.bailiwick.org.