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Something's to be said for free solo rock climbers, those niche athletes less interested in probing the paths of least resistance than those of the greatest resistance instead.
What are they, crazy?
Even with the life-preserving amenities of carabiners, ropes, cams, nuts, and pitons, thirty people on average lose their lives while mountain climbing each year. When the hazards inherent in the craft already place its practitioners at risk, why multiply that peril, forsaking any anchorage except for two chalk-dusted hands and inch-wide footholds, several hundred feet above ground?
The thought occurred to me as I weighed the two productions of Stephen King's Misery now running, some twenty miles apart, at Raleigh Little Theatre and PlayMakers Rep in Chapel Hill. (The potentially disastrous double-booking came after the professional and amateur rights divisions at Dramatists Play Service didn't catch the scheduling conflict before licensing both productions.)
In all of its incarnations – a best-selling 1987 novel, an Oscar award-winning 1990 film, and a 2015 stage play – Misery has been labeled a thriller (even if the critics, granted, largely concluded its Broadway premiere wasn't particularly all that thrilling).
Like their cinematic counterparts, dramatists have been making theatrical thrillers now for well over a century. The aesthetic and technical conventions by which they generate or enhance fear, dread, and suspense are well known among the craft.
By way of brief and incomplete review: physical proximity and intimacy – placing the audience nearer to or within the metaworld of the story, as well situating characters far too close to dangers – make it harder for viewers to distance themselves, literally and psychologically, from a place of peril. Brighter palettes tend to lift the mood; favor muted, darker color schemes instead. Smaller, enclosed spaces can suggest a feeling of being trapped or cornered, visibly reducing not only the characters' options for evasion or escape, but the audience's as well. Jump scares and the like are based on sudden, drastic recalibrations of perceived risk. And shadows give fears more room in which to hide; when it comes to generating scares, darkness isn't just the cheapest form of set design, sometimes it's by far the most effective.
Of course, nothing says you can't stage a thriller without observing all of these conventions. Psychological wars of nerves have been waged in our area under the soul-draining glare of fluorescent lights (A Steady Rain, Rat in the Skull), in warehouse spaces (Titus Andronicus, among many experimental productions), and even on stages swathed more or less in white (A Number).
But in the main, I'm tempted to say there is a Tao of Halloween: a way by which least resistance produces maximal results. When the shows above chose those departures, their creators had specific reasons, and did so with some care. If some of those choices were forced, usually upon companies with limited resources, the other choices they made in their productions had to compensate for them.
It's ironic that the biggest forced choice among our region's Miseries lands on the group with the greatest resources instead: PlayMakers Rep. The dimensions of Paul Green Theatre, its 500-seat house, clearly cut against intimacy and physical proximity. But the degrees to which the production's design elements exacerbate that drawback are striking. The only one without a downside is composer and sound designer Kate Marvin's audio landscape of digitally processed, atmospheric voices, heartbeats, and sound effects, as her cello provides a momentary, winking homage to film composer John Williams.
Designer McKay Coble centers the house of disturbed former nurse Annie Wilkes (Julia Gibson) on a turntable so we can follow wheelchaired writer Paul Sheldon (Karl Kenzler) on his odyssey of uneasy discoveries through her living room and kitchen. So far, so cinematic. But that approach leaves only the floor and far corner of his bedroom partially built out; beyond those, the rest of what should be the writer's prison is invisible and extends into seemingly infinite space.
The parts of Wilkes' house that are visible suggest little to nothing in the way of the sinister. Coble's palette may be dated, appropriately enough, but it's noticeably cheery and domestic. It also remains overexposed, even in rainy daytimes and at night, by newcomer designer Tao Wang's less than intimate lights.
By contrast, set designer Sonya Drum's digs and Bronwyn White's lights for the Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre, the second-stage black box at Raleigh Little Theatre, follow the playbook for a thriller to a T. Glowering, intimate amber light from floor and table lamps, a somber wallpaper pattern of brown and lifeless leaves on black, and worn old wood for exposed rafters and wall frames suggest something less than total hospitality in Sheldon's narrow convalescent cell. The afterthought of ancient, mildewed books that line the floor along the room's perimeter add a tasteful Gothic touch. Advantage: RLT.
On that stage, actor Sandi Sullivan marks her return to the regional stage in striking form. As Annie Wilkes, her gaunt character's makeup, iron-colored wig, and costume by designer Elspeth McClanahan suggest a cross between a sepulchral, 70's-era William S. Burroughs and the seated mother that Vera Miles' character encounters toward the end of Hitchcock's Psycho. It's basically pitch-perfect for a project like this.
Directors Jeffrey Meanza at PlayMakers and Sean Brosnahan at RLT follow similar contours in the performances they create with their respective casts.
When it comes to explanations for their outré behaviors, psychopathic characters fall along a continuum of sorts as they're written, directed, and acted in thrillers. It's hardly an Agatha Christie whodunit if the villain or detective doesn't tell us why someone was murdered. Cinematic baddies veer from full explication, as with Glenn Close's chatty femme fatale in Fatal Attraction, to the ultimate in non-disclosure: the implacable, wordless Michael Myers in Halloween.
In an era of continuous mass shootings – in America, at least – humans demand a reason, even (and perhaps particularly) for acts that are inherently unreasonable. As a people, we're still in the process of realizing those reasons rarely fully satisfy, or fully bridge the disconnect between the backstory and the terminating act. Though that dissatisfaction shows up in both productions, I don't consider it a flaw.
In this culture, it's closer to journalism.
There may be more evidence for limited emotional affect in Brosnahan and Sullivan's take on Annie Wilkes – a certain deadness in the eyes when she says she loves Ryan Brock's irascible Paul – than in the PlayMakers show. Still, I can't say with certainty; in Paul Green Theatre, microgestures don't carry six rows back and up.
In both worlds, Paul clearly pushes Annie's buttons, sometimes deliberately, often not. In both places, it's the reactions that seemingly come out of the blue that, appropriately, give the most pause.
The matter-of-factness in Annie's dispassionate description of what she plans to do to Paul is more appropriate. It could be the most uncanny and dread-inducing part of these productions – but it wasn't, in either case, on the nights I saw the shows. Without the use of melodramatic topspin, a special alchemy is needed between a director and actor to give a mundane line of dialogue the full and final certainty of a death sentence. In his prime, John Malkovitch could do it, before he started parodying that ability. It's hard to, and few others can.
In both productions, the supporting cast is not as developed as the principals, and the final fight scenes were still a bit of a mess. In a final miscalculation in the final scene in Chapel Hill, the star-crossed writer and his greatest fan are placed as far apart as they could be on the same stage, diluting once again the potential for suspense. It then falls to sound designer Marvin to leave us with a ghastly, ghostly Liberace quote – quite a lovely chill to close an evening that could have used a few more.
With their differing strengths and weaknesses, Raleigh gets the nod for the show that looked and acted most like the thriller both advertised.
Misery at PlayMakers Rep continues through Tuesday, October 31. For more details, please view the sidebar.
Misery at Raleigh Little Theatre continues through Sunday, November 5. For more details, please view the sidebar.