From the moment she steps on stage to the moment the curtains close, Lucia Frangione embodies the horrifying presence that is Annie Wilkes.
Put on by Arts Club Theatre Company, the largest non-profit urban theatre company in Canada, William Goldman’s Misery, based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel, haunted a near full audience at the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre Jan. 30.
After putting the finishing touches on his new novel and ridding the world of his beloved character Misery Chastain, Paul Sheldon (Andrew McNee) — one of King’s many middle-aged, alcoholic writer protagonists — jets from his Colorado writer’s den to meet with his agent in New York City. What Sheldon doesn’t know is that a headline-worthy Rocky Mountain storm is brewing.
With an arm in a sling and broken from the waist down following a terrible accident, Sheldon is taken under the care of Wilkes, an ex-nurse and Mr. Man’s number one fan. This is where Arts Club’s story begins.
Wilkes’ friendly and nurturing demeanour takes a quick turn after she reads the dirty birdy’s manuscript, full of cockadoodie profanity, and Sheldon’s saviour quickly turns tormentor. Sheldon’s doomsday clock ticks rapidly as he works to rid himself of Wilkes’ care before it’s too late.
That’s the overall gist of Arts Club Theatre Company’s rendition of Misery. On the surface, it appears to be nothing more than mere entertainment meant to cause both heart-clenching panic and gut-wrenching laughter.
But, with a peppering of back story behind King’s motivations, the story takes on a new meaning.
Written by King after a near decade-long battle with cocaine addiction, and a several decade-long struggle with alcoholism, Misery delves much deeper than a mere horror story.
Wilkes is cocaine. Cocaine was King’s number one fan. And, King realized, his number one fan only sought to slowly kill him after writing one more novel, and then one more, and so on until he could no longer fight back.
That message is wrought throughout the pages of King’s novel. What Misery is, then, is a novel-length and fiction-fuelled character study. Sheldon, the beaten-down alcoholic writer, is a sketch of King.
While the play loses some of that dialogue found within the pages of the novel, it does hold true to the original portrait. In fact, Arts Club took King’s tale a step further.
The dark atmosphere is penetrated by bouts of comedy, often generating from McNee’s Sheldon, which cuts the tension on stage like a hot knife cuts butter.
Speaking of the stage, Lauchlin Johnston’s wondrous set acts as a fourth character in the play. Set almost entirely in Wilkes’ home, hidden cupboards open in the wall, unravelling each room in a seamless manor. Set changes happen in front of the audience, but instead of detracting from the performance, they add to it.
However, the true star of the show was Frangione.
Misery rose to international acclaim following the 1990 film adaptation starring Kathy Bates, who won four awards — including a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama — for her performance as Wilkes.
“I didn’t watch it because I didn’t want to compare myself to Kathy Bates,” Frangione said of the film. “When you play something iconic like this, it’s big shoes to fill.”
Consider the shoes filled. Frangione, a Vancouver-based award-winning playwright who teaches her craft at Langara College, gives Bates a run for her money.
While the version that graced the Vernon stage may take some theatrical liberties from the novel, Misery is a horrifying psychological thriller made for the stage and put to purpose by Johnston’s set, McNee, Frangione and Arts Club Theatre Company.