Stephen King’s “Misery” comes to the Houston stage

Stephen King’s “Misery” comes to the Houston stage
Stephen King’s “Misery” comes to the Houston stage

“They want to see that guy’s leg get broken, and they’re going to be hungry for it.”

Curtis Barber’s assessment is as blunt as a hammer blow. He directs Dirt Dogs Theater Co.’s production of Misery, the Stephen King novel that became a popular film and then a 2015 Broadway production, adapted by screenwriter William Goldman and starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf. Now the show is coming to MATCH, Houston’s downtown performing arts center, and Barber knows the audience will have set expectations — especially when it comes to a certain scene.

“If you’re familiar with the movie, you’ll be able to see everything you want to see in this adaptation,” says Barber. “And with that come some challenges. There are great expectations for the story and how it will be told. So it’s been really fun playing into people’s expectations when they see a scene or a moment, and then also playing against them.”

For those who have been trapped by a blizzard and a madman in a Colorado cabin for the past few decades, Misery tells the story of Paul Sheldon, a romance writer who is rescued by his “Number One Fan”, Annie Wilkes, after he crashes his car into a snowbank. The good news is that she saves him. The bad news is that she’s crazy. While nursing him back to health, Annie reads his new manuscript and discovers that he kills off her (and everyone’s) favorite character, Misery Chastain. This development does not please her, and she holds him captive, tortures him, gives him painkillers and forces him to write another book.

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The performances in the film, from James Caan and especially Kathy Bates (who won an Oscar for her performance), remain indelible. So how does a new production chart its own course? Dirt Dogs decided to go small. Their Misery will play in the most intimate of MATCH’s performance spaces, allowing Barber and crew to emphasize the story’s claustrophobia.

Trevor B. Cone and Malinda L. Beckham in Dirt Dogs Theater Co.'s production of Misery

Trevor B. Cone and Malinda L. Beckham in Dirt Dogs Theater Co.’s production of Misery

Gary Griffin

“The challenge we’ve given ourselves is that the audience is there,” says Barber. “As much of the production has to look as realistic as possible, and it’s exciting and challenging in the same breath. As a director, I wanted to cultivate that feeling of, ‘I’m a little too close to this.’ The film does very well by mostly staying in the room and just zeroing in on the moments, on her face, on his face, on the bed. Our source material is the play. It’s a different medium, and I think Houston audiences are smart enough to come to it with an open mind.”

The main actors know each other well. Dirt Dogs artistic director Malinda L. Beckham plays Annie. CEO Trevor B. Cone plays Paul. They’re a married couple, which means, as Barber says, “They can go home and practice their lines.” Hopefully without a sledgehammer.

King’s novel was published in 1987, and the film came out in 1990, both well before the internet. But Misery was prescient, a tale of fan obsession taken to its most grotesque extreme. Annie Wilkes is every troll who has ever lashed out at a favorite star or artist for doing something different. Except she doesn’t do it online. She means to kill Paul if he doesn’t do as she demands, and she literally uses a hammer. King has touched on the potentially toxic relationship between an author and his fan base elsewhere, in the 2006 novel Lisy’s story. But thanks a lot to the movie, Misery is the one everyone remembers.

For Barber, the play is right on time. “I think a lot can be said about our culture of obsession, and it’s really interesting to facilitate that conversation by telling this story,” he says. “Annie embodies celebrity fan culture gone dangerous. That’s what people do today on the internet, but that’s before that happened. So we really get to see what can happen when you get to meet your hero.”

Misery runs from Friday 3. March through Saturday, March 18 at MATCH, 3400 Main Street, Houston, TX, 77002. For tickets and more information, visit Dirt Dogs Theater Co.’s website.

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