Misery is Anything But at Yellow Tree in Osseo

Bill McCallum & George Keller Photo: Brandon Raghu

I’m Stephen King’s number one fan. Although, I don’t really feel comfortable saying that after witnessing the extremes to which Annie Wilkes goes as the number one fan of writer Paul Sheldon in Misery. Misery which opened Friday night at the Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo is an adaptation by William Goldman of his screenplay adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. The book and the film are excellent, and now the play adds another successful medium translation. For those of us who know both the novel and the film, Yellow Tree’s production still has the power to entertain and thrill. For those unfamiliar with either, I think it will be an exceptionally engaging thriller. Even knowing what’s coming, my attention was still held throughout thanks in no small part to the excellent performances by the plays cast. If you have anyone in your circle who is unfamiliar with Misery, take them and watch how these two master storytellers, King and Goldman, have them on the edge of their seats.

The play opens with writer Paul Sheldon waking up in the home of Annie Wilkes, his self declared “number one fan”. He doesn’t know where he is or what happened to him. He learns from Annie that he had a car accident due to a snowstorm and that luckily she found him and was able to pry him out of the wreckage and get him back to her house in the woods. He has a badly dislocated shoulder and both legs were broken. Luckily for him, she’s a former nurse who was able to splint his broken legs and has a stockpile of painkillers to help him manage the pain until he can be moved to the hospital. Unfortunately, the phone lines are down because of the storm and the road to the hospital is undrivable, or so Annie says. Annie, whom at first seems to Paul like a Angel of mercy, slowly reveals herself to be more a harbinger of misery. It starts with little moments of odd behavior which become increasingly more disconcerting. Soon it becomes clear to Paul that his number one fan loves him so much, she has no intention of ever letting him go. The play becomes an exercise in suspense to see if Paul can outwit Annie and survive until help can arrive.

George Keller has the unenviable task of stepping into the role of Annie Wilkes, iconically played by Kathy Bates who won the Best Actress Oscar for the role in the film Misery. Wisely, Keller doesn’t attempt to emulate Bates portrayal but instead makes it her own adding an edge and a stronger air of intelligence to the character. The dialogue and the actions are the same but the motivations feel tweaked which give the performance a freshness. Bill McCallum is a worthy opponent in the cat and mouse game. We can see him learning early on that Annie isn’t as easily manipulated as her goofy initial impression gave him reason to believe. He’s able to charm her, but he gets caught a few times trying to be too patronizing and we can see him weighing what she will buy and what she’ll see through. It’s a remarkably intelligent performance requiring McCallum to spend half the play in a bed using mostly just his face and voice to create his character. Then the role requires him to do some compartibly physical acting and in doing so, sells the pain the character is in, that’s made worse by said physical exertion. Valencia Proctor appears in a small role as Sheriff Buster who comes looking for Paul on a couple of occasions. Proctor doesn’t get much to do, but gets one of the best surprises in the whole show.

The show is directed by John Catron who handles the staging fairly effectively. There are a couple of moments that could have been handled with more clarity and precision. On Paul’s first secret escape from his room, there is some business with some pills and a timer, that is called back to later in the play. What happens with the timer doesn’t play quite right and isn’t clear to the audience what, if anything, is actually supposed to be happening with it. I think the suspense could have been even greater as well if the cat and mouse angles had been a little sharper, but those are all just thoughts on how to make something that works, even better. The Scenic Designer Justin Hooper has made wonderful use of Yellow Tree’s limited stage space. It’s a one location set but within the location we get Paul’s room, the kitchen, the livingroom, the hallway, and the front steps of Annie’s home. Hooper uses a technique that has worked well at Yellow Tree before on creating partial structures so we understand where the rooms are but we can see through them into the ones behind. Doors only exist physically one third of their reality, so the actors can use the doors, we know where they are, if they are open or shut, but they don’t obstruct us from seeing what’s happening on the other side of them. There are some neat prop and effects-work which I don’t want to spoil. Sadly, it’s hard to evaluate the Sound Design by Jeff Bailey. The Yellow Tree’s sound system was experiencing technical difficulties and it was a bit distracting at times, but the show is absorbing enough that it will not spoil your enjoyment. These things happen in smaller theatres. If it happens at the Guthrie, they have the resources to have it replaced or fixed right away. Yellow Tree, and theatres like it, don’t have those same resources. In fact, the pandemic has placed many of these smaller theatres in precarious financial situations, and it’s only through the support of audiences that they can keep putting on these wonderful productions. These are important venues for reaching new audiences and providing theatre going opportunities for those who don’t live in the city. You can support Yellow Tree Theatre by going to their shows but you can also make a donation. They need a new sound system, if you’ve enjoyed their productions in the past I urge to to go to this link and make a donation https://ci.ovationtix.com/35626/store/donations/39012.

Misery runs through March 19th at Yellow Tree Theatre for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://yellowtreetheatre.com/misery

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