The Icing on the Sledgehammer
- By gentleguide
- On Sun 21 Jan 2018
The suspense-thriller Misery (based on the book by Stephen King and subsequent Oscar-winning movie) is the latest offering by the Des Moines Playhouse. Opening January 26, this stage adaptation features some of the best and most experienced talent in the city, bringing to life a tale of obsession and desperation. Micheal Davenport, Preshia Paulding, and director John Viars combine to create an intense journey into a world of tension and terror.
For those not familiar with the story, Misery details the interaction between best-selling author Paul Sheldon (played by Davenport), who suffers a horrendous car crash and is saved by his self-proclaimed “Number One Fan” Annie Wilkes (Preshia Paulding). Annie takes Paul to her isolated, quiet home to recuperate from his significant injuries... and both lives spiral downward as Annie’s obsession and Paul’s desire for escape collide in brutal fashion.
As the only “straight drama” on the Playhouse season schedule, Misery brings with it some name recognition and familiarity for audiences. Many know well either the original King novel or the Kathy Bates-led film feature. But not everything is exactly as it may seem if you’ve read the book or seen the movie. Director Viars knows how to wield such a double-edged sword.
“Title appeal and a belief that we can do a good job with the material are fundamental drivers for drama selection. Occasionally, we find a show that doesn’t have a familiar title, but we feel so strongly about it that we take a chance that word-of-mouth will deliver an audience. That isn’t the case with Misery-it’s definitely a familiar title, and when I saw the Broadway production, I felt we could do a good job with it, and it would be a good choice for our current season, especially when we are raising money for a capital campaign.”
“There is an intrinsic difference between literature and performing arts that allows novels to reveal the thoughts of characters, while cinema and theatre find that harder. Annie’s horrific backstory is fully examined in the novel, given only lip service in the movie, and is absent from the play. There are lots of characters in the novel, just a few in the movie, and only 3 in the play. Annie’s ‘hobbling’ scene in the book is different in the movie and the play, but I give away too much if I say more.”
For both the principals, Misery was a chance to create a role unlike anything they’d done previously. “The movie Misery is iconic for its bone crushing horror scene,” says Paulding, “and Annie Wilkes is a premium role, one that I would say skyrocketed Kathy Bates to fame. It has a layer of character complexities to it that an actress doesn’t normally get to explore. I wanted that.”
“I have done my share of musicals and comedies and even serious plays, but never a suspenseful thriller/drama with character range. I wanted to be able to prove to myself and others that I could be believable in the capacity of suspenseful drama as well as lighthearted comedy and musicals. I also wanted John Viars to direct me in it. Being the only female working opposite two very talented men like Micheal Davenport and Mike Meacham was icing on the sledgehammer. I have great respect for them professionally, and they are just great people.”
Viars loves working with these veteran performers as well. While the task of creating a show always has certain elements, some things are easier than others when you don’t have to start from scratch. “My approach is the same for all shows that are text-related. We dive deeply into intentions, motivations, beats, levels, and nuance. We start with some table work, then do discovery as the process progresses. Micheal and Preshia are good to work with, because they get the fundamentals.”
Much like Paulding, Davenport is ready for that discovery process. “The character of Paul Sheldon is unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I’ve been in other so-called two-handlers (but we have three people in this one [Mike Meacham]) with heavy line loads which require tremendous focus and rehearsal - True West, Red, and The Elephant Man come to mind. However, this role requires a physicality, stunts, and a persona so very different from anything I’ve yet had the chance to do. I’ve never played this kind of tortured emotion on stage; I’ve never has such simple blocking; and the stunt work is completely new to me. So far it’s been a hell of a ride.”
One may wonder what kind of “stunt work” is necessary for a character that is essentially bed-ridden with injuries for a majority of the play. With two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder, one can understand the “simple blocking” Davenport refers to. But there’s more to it than that.
“For me, it’s hard to stay flat on my back for so long as I do in this show, and too it’s hard to play a character in pain, tortured, without taking on some of those feelings. Working myself into a panting, slobbering frenzy can occur - but that does take a bit of a mental and physical toll. There is a scene where Paul has to throw himself off a bed, and then crawl all through the house, dragging his broken legs, only propelled by his one ‘good’ arm. That is quite taxing. My sweat and deep cacophonous breaths aren’t faked - it’s super hard work. But I am enjoying it greatly. Just don’t look too closely at my bruises and skinned knees.”
Paulding has a different kind of challenge. Her “stunts”, if you will, are more emotional in nature. Playing Annie means she gets to move forward much of the activity in Misery, but it’s not all about action. “There is a responsibility for me to keep energy up. But energy isn’t all about moving, it’s about pacing and drive, I feel confident that the scenes won’t lag. I truly believe the acting credit goes to Micheal for his ability to be in the bed and still maintain the different levels of emotions and ultimately life-threatening fear Annie’s character brings him to.”
“As far as the emotional struggle of Annie and being able to bring that to life - it will be organic. I’m not saying I personally am a bit of a mental case, but it will be easy to draw upon her mental illnesses for both shock and sympathy. Her sickness and obsession was, in my mind, a result of embedded physical and mental abuse, a bipolar nature, delusions, a need to be a character she identified in a story, and extreme loneliness.”
“She’s a woman who shares a morning cup of coffee with her pet pig she named Misery - and I sleep beside a mastiff named Max. I found my organic connection.”
The final piece of the puzzle for both Davenport and Paulding was the opportunity to work with Playhouse Artistic Director John Viars for one final time. Viars is retiring shortly from his long-time duties at the Playhouse, and Misery represented a chance neither actor was sure would come around again.
Davenport has nothing but love for his director. “With John Viars, it is a real treat. I do have a sort of short-hand with John. I have worked more with him than any other director ever. He probably knows me better than anyone else in theatre, save Tom Perrine [Artistic Director at Tallgrass Theatre Company]. It is those two directors I thank for getting me interested in directing.”
“But regarding John, I feel very close to him, fond of him. I can imagine him bristling as he reads this, eyes sarcastically rolling around, but it’s true. He knows what I need as an actor, he knows my weaknesses, bag of tricks habits, and he knows the right buttons to push. Truly, it is always a process working with any director, and I have had my ups and downs with JV over the past 12 or so years - but he has made me a better actor, a better person, and I have him to thank for where I am with my career.”
It has been a special experience for Paulding, both working with Viars and the rest of her Misery team. “One cannot dismiss the level of experience represented on stage with this show. It’s enormous. Does it help? In many ways, yes, although experience isn’t always the key. There are other factors such as raw talent, drive, energy, etc. But there is a sense of trust already build in with this three-person cast and group of professionals, even those behind the scenes. We all know what we are capable of and we support each other to achieve that level of excellence.”
“Being directed in a serious role by John Viars has been on my bucket list. When John Viars called me personally to offer me the role, he said ‘You realize you will not look good for the role’ to which I commented back assuringly... ‘John, you haven’t seen me in the morning.’”
Misery opens at the Des Moines Playhouse on January 26. Tickets are available from the Playhouse box office, by phone at 515-277-6261, or online at dmplayhouse.com.