WILMINGTON —A local theater company is putting audiences front and center with a crazed kidnapper over the next two weekends as it pays homage to America’s darling of horror and supernatural fiction, Stephen King.
Big Dawg Productions will present the Wilmington premiere of “Misery.” The show opens Thursday night and will be directed by Randy Davis. Artistic director Steve Vernon told Port City Daily watching the grisly characters in this nightmare come to life will be a thrill because of the intimacy of the 100-seat Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater.
“Seeing the story unfold live, just a few feet from you, makes the sinister aspects of the story much more personal,” he said.
The 2015 adaptation was derived from the 1990 film and 1989 book. King first published “Misery” as a horror novel, though William Goldman penned the screenplay for the film and book for the stage. It follows the story of romance novelist Paul Sheldon’s run-in with an obsessive fan-turned-kidnapper Annie Wilkes.
Paul’s work is best known through his sequence of Victorian romance novels, specifically regarding protagonist Misery Chastain; but he wants to move on to more serious literary pursuits.
Carrying the manuscript for his new work, Paul gets in an accident amid a blizzard and falls unconscious. He awakens with two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder in the remote home of Annie, his “number one fan.” She becomes his caretaker — for better or worse — until the blizzard subsides and the phone lines are reconnected.
Soon, Paul realizes Annie’s good intentions actually turn sour; she has become his captor. Annie reads his new novel and last Misery installment, only to become enraged upon learning he kills off the series’ heroine. To assuage Annie’s desire for a better ending — and to save his life — Paul starts writing a new manuscript resurrecting Misery.
“Instead of reading the story or seeing it on a screen, the audience is in the room with Annie and Paul, making them almost unwilling participants in the struggle between the two,” Vernon said.
Vernon has wanted to launch a Big Dawg production of “Misery” since the play’s script became available for offshoot productions around six years ago. He said he checked in four or five times a year to secure the show, though the rights were not released until late 2021.
One challenge with putting the story to the stage is navigating the violence between Annie and Paul. The film received an R rating for its graphic moments, including a scene where Annie takes a sledgehammer to Paul’s ankles.
“We’ve tried not to add any gratuitous elements,” Vernon said. “Attention has been paid to not going further than necessary to illustrate the violence.”
To that end, careful consideration has gone into Annie and Paul’s fight scenes; Vernon described the process as a team effort involving costume designer Stephanie Aman, lighting designer Cole Marquis, set designer Donna Troy, in addition to the work that Davis put into guiding the production.
For Holli Saperstein, tackling the lead role of Annie has its blessings and curses.
“As an actress, having the opportunity to play such a range of emotions is so rare,” she said.
Because the play is essentially a two-person vehicle, Saperstein said the pressure of being on stage for the entirety of the play is intense — as is pulling off the production’s special effects.
Vernon was mum on the visual aesthetics audiences can expect: “I don’t want to give too much away.”
Saperstein said she has been drawing on her understanding of mental illness to conjure Annie. Specifically, she has researched people who struggle with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Although the film does not diagnose Annie, her psychological instability is apparent.
“I think about what it looks like and what it must feel like for them to deal with the rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts,” Saperstein said.
Though most who are familiar with the story will synonymously think of Annie and Kathy Bates, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress in the film, Saperstein didn’t watch the movie nor read King’s novel in preparation.
“I want to make Annie my own character,” she said.
Similarities will be present, she assured, including Annie’s sadism and romanticism, though, it’s dictated more by the writing and less by the acting.
The play is not just a revival of a past hit; Vernon said “Misery” speaks to the extremes of today’s celebrity fan culture, and how easily the line separating support and mania can be crossed, especially in the age of social media.
“We see a lot of anger coming from fan bases directed toward artists these days,” Vernon said. “Some fans feel a sense of ownership over characters that a writer creates, to the point where they become outraged over choices made regarding those characters.”
Saperstein remarked it’s a universal struggle.
“I think everyone has felt obsessed about something in their life,” she said. “Like you would do whatever it takes — and you are blinded by it.”
Big Dawg Productions opens “Misery” Thursday at The Ruth and Bucky Stein Studio Theatre at Thalian Hall. The show runs Oct. 20 through Oct. 23, and Oct. 27 to Oct. 30. Curtains go up at 7:30 p.m., except for Sundays’ matinee performances at 3 p.m. Tickets are $34.
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