THEATER REVIEW: Fresno State’s ‘Misery’ includes a searing student performance, but the show doesn’t have the impact of the novel or movie

Folks have been flocking to the Fresno State stage production of “Misery,” and it’s no wonder: Stephen King’s taut and creepy tale, which reminded us of all the ways the president of any celebrity’s fan club should not behave, became a milepost on the ’90s culture highway. The novel is terrifying because of how well it seems to trap the reader in its claustrophobic pages; you could always stop reading, of course, but fealty to the small and brutal world that King created nearly forces you to stick it out to the end. The 1990 film was a kick, and a nice jump scare, too. The “I’m your No. 1 fan” line, which also became famous, never felt cheesy but instead downright menacing; Kathy Bates made the world a little less trusting of middle-aged women with knives.

Pictured above: Bethany Rand plays Annie Wilkes in ‘Misery.’ Photo: Fresno State University Theatre

And what of the stage version, which was adapted by William Goldman from his movie screenplay?

It places a weak third when stacked up against the novel and the play.

The Fresno State production, which has just one sold-out performance remaining (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, and don’t even think about trying to get tickets, the box office says), does offer some strengths under Thomas-Whit Ellis’ direction. The sturdiest is an astute and memorable performance by student actor Bethany Rand in the Kathy Bates role. (For those who aren’t “Misery”-fluent, she’s the one who finds Paul Sheldon, the author of her favorite romance-novel series, in the aftermath of a snowy car crash, then brings him to her isolated mountain cabin to recuperate.) Her character, Annie Wilkes, is a bundle of physical and emotional tics. Rand deftly brings both nurture and menace to the role. When those two character traits collide, Annie is the most interesting. Obviously stunted in her emotional life, she’s landed the dream lover — he can’t get out of bed and run away! — but she begins to realize that real intimacy requires more than pumping your love muffin full of painkillers and forcing him to play “house” like a second grader.

I also like that Ellis took pains not to let the material stray into the realm of parody or cheap laughs, which might have been a temptation with a storyline so well known to much of the audience.


There are three major weaknesses, however, as I see it:

• This three-person play is far, far, far too long. The original Broadway production clocked in at 90 minutes with no intermission. The Fresno State production was closer to 135 minutes with one short intermission. I don’t know if the playwright added any new material for the post-Broadway version of the play. My take is that much of this extended run-time is the result of long blackouts to reposition actors and set pieces. (This was harder because of the smallness of the theater and the fact that some audience members are seated just a few feet away from the actors; some shortcuts that you could get away with, staging-wise, in a larger proscenium space where you’re farther from the audience, you can’t do when everything is so much closer.) But the blackouts felt interminable. And the pace of the show overall seems sluggish.

• While Joel Ayala’s lighting design is first-rate, Rene Nielson’s set design is clunky and confusing. A kitchen table and sink intrude awkwardly into the guest bedroom to which Paul has been banished. It feels smashed together and too literal. There’s nothing conceptual about the design, no roadmap to the audience so it can navigate this confusing delineation of physical spaces.

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• I just don’t care for the performance of Stephen Cloud as Paul. He’s miscast. The professional actor (and Fresno State alum) is fine in terms of the technical demands of the role (lines, blocking, etc.) But I just didn’t feel much of an interior to Paul. Without those close-ups in the movie or the thoughts dancing through the novel, he just seems sleepy and vacant. Granted, the character doesn’t seem to process the first clues suggesting that Annie is his enemy, not his friend. He is on some heavy painkillers, after all. But after Annie raises his voice to him, and even after she reveals the extent of her malfeasance, I still felt more of a sense of blankness from Paul than anything else. Because this is essentially a two-person play (Sabrina Ramirez has a small role as a nosy sheriff), and one in which the characters can’t be honest with each other, there isn’t a way to speak his fear. But I couldn’t read it in his stage presence, either.

Still, even though I wasn’t wholeheartedly impressed, it’s obvious that playgoers discovered the show, and that’s always good for local theater. It’s fun for Fresno State to pursue new titles and find new ways to reach theatergoers. And it’s exciting to learn the final performances of the show have sold out. To those audiences, I say: Enjoy the fertile mind of Stephen King, no matter if it’s a movie, book or play. And remember: If you’re a budding novelist, always make a backup copy of your manuscript.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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