PROVO — Misery, made famous by a 1990 film based on the novel by Stephen King, is an intense psychological horror play written by William Goldman. Directed by M. Chase Grant, Misery was a great success — unlike any immersive theatre I’ve ever experienced. Presented within a residential home, the incredibly intimate production brings the horror to life just feet away. With only five performances and a limited audience size of 15 per performance, Dirty Birdy Theatre’s production of Misery was truly a unique and unparalleled opportunity.
After a snowy car crash that renders him unconscious, famous author, Paul Sheldon, (played by Kacey Spadafora) is found by nurse, Annie Wilkes, (played by Liz Golden) who brings Paul home to her secluded house away from town. Paul awakens to find both his legs have been broken and right shoulder dislocated. Annie is also his biggest fan. Annie claims to have been in the right place at the right time, and to help nurse Paul back to health. Paul soon realizes Annie’s true intentions — that Annie has not informed anyone of Paul’s location and is holding him prisoner. Paul and Annie’s relationship is abusive and violent under the guise of love and care, becoming increasingly obsessive and controlling. Paul is at Annie’s mercy, and he plays into her affections to appease her and gain advantage over the situation. What plays out over the course of a few months is suspenseful and chilling, leading to shocking and grisly murders.
The choice to stage the production in a residential basement worked exceptionally well. The 80’s decor and strategically placed retro games, books and trinkets around the small room made the bedroom/living room setting completely believable. The audience sat on old torn up couches and cushions. The remarkably intimate setting made me feel unbeknownst to the characters, totally immersed in the terror playing out right in front of me.
I have not seen many plays in the horror genre, and the ones that I have seen typically aren’t actually scary. Misery is scary. The production team created a realistic and frightening setting. From the first scene change of unexpected darkness and deafening silence, I was thrilled. Chris Olson’s generally dim lighting design created a creepy but realistic mood. Germ Henry’s sound design was equally effective. I appreciated moments of silence, as well as disorienting music, frightening ambient sounds, and religious phrases that aided in the chilling atmosphere.
Henry, also in charge of scenic design and props, helped to create realistic and graphic on-stage violence like I have never seen before. Paired with excellent acting and direction, some scenes were truly shocking. I gasped when Buster, (played by Wade Robert Johnson) the police officer investigating Paul’s disappearance, is shot. The way that Johnson fell back against the door, along with the sound effect of the gun and the blood that splattered and dripped down the door, was jaw dropping.
The acting was done very well from all three actors. Spadafora’s Paul was thoughtful and vulnerable, and he portrayed the character’s injuries convincingly, so much so that some scenes left me wincing. In one particular scene, Annie breaks Paul’s ankles to prevent him from being able to leave. Spadafora’s crippling screams elicited nothing short of pure agony. The proximity and intimate nature of the production made scenes like this harrowing and exciting. Another favorite moment from Spadafora is after Annie spills the glass of wine that Paul had drugged with pain pills he had been stockpiling. The disappointment Spadafora displayed was palpable in realizing his plan for escape had failed.
As Annie, Liz Golden is outstanding. She plays the desperate fan and unsuspecting sociopath with incredible skill, able to switch between emotions immediately. Golden portrays an exuberant excitement one moment and uncontrollable anger the next. Annie is funny in her obsession with Paul, being enamored with him and staring at him so intently. Annie falls deeply in love with Paul, which leads to her becoming equally enraged by him. Maniacally laughing throughout, Golden elicits a sense of foreboding and Annie comes off as crazy, though her authenticity and emotional state humanizes Annie, allowing for me to sympathize with her madness and see her as more than just a monster. Golden gave life to a deeply flawed and complicated, multidimensional character in the most believable and entertaining way.
A genuinely thrilling production, every moment of Dirty Birdy’s Misery was engrossing and great fun. The show succeeded in every way, exceeding my already high expectations. I wish that the show was still running so that I could recommend immediately buying a ticket, though it was special experience, and a powerful theatrical performance that I will likely never forget.