Stage Review: Halloween Shivers with Playhouse’s ‘Misery’

By J.E. Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN – Paul Sheldon, writer of the renowned “Misery” books, has been the victim of a serious car crash. Fortunately, or maybe not, he is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a nurse by trade, and she takes him to her remote cabin to recover.

Thus the audience meets these two characters in William Goldman’s play, “Misery,” which is based on the novel by Steven King.

In the Youngstown Playhouse’s production of “Misery,” which opened Friday, audiences are taken on a roller coaster ride as the novelist and his biggest fan square off in a chilling tale of obsession.

Brian Suchora plays Paul Sheldon with flair and ease as he walks the tightrope that has become his lifeline. In pain and not totally aware of what is happening early on, Suchora presents Sheldon as entirely dependent on his caregiver.

His caregiver, Annie Wilkes, played by Jenna Cintavey, is the epitome of an overzealous “No. 1 fan.” Her enthusiasm at having this world renowned author in her home spews forth like a volcano in full roar. The only problem is that this “volcano” doesn’t show its fire until later.

Both actors provide all of the set-up material at the beginning with great integrity and skill. Annie is so enamored with Sheldon and his series of “Misery” books that she almost knows all eight of them by heart; plot and characters. Suchora delivers the opening scenes with not only convincing physical pain but also the right amount of ego for being so worshiped by a fan.

Things change quickly, however, when Annie purchases book No. 9 in the “Misery” series. Finding out that Sheldon has killed off her favorite character, Misery Chastain, she sets in motion a plan for him to reverse that “bad” decision. Cintavey is chilling in her sudden reversal from starry-eyed admirer to an almost crazed maniac. Her character shift, although sudden, is done well and believably.

Suchora’s Sheldon reacts as authors often do, who are protective of their work, by blunting any attempt to change what he has set in stone. Suchora, also has a character change, but his is a bit more subtle than his co-star. He gives Sheldon a natural reaction to the problem being presented to him. That is until, things become much more dire. It soon becomes clear that he is not leaving the company of Wilkes until he gives her what she wants – a new story that brings the Misery character back. And not just back, but back the way she wants it.

Cintavey shows an increasing obsessiveness in Wilkes, which sends chills up and down your spine. One begins to wonder if Wilkes even knows the line between reality and fiction. But Cintavey knows how to balance the two so the character stays within the boundaries that the audience will accept.

Suchora presents Sheldon as being in a real conundrum. He wants nothing more than to leave this cabin but also realizes that his life is in the hands of Wilkes. Oh, what to do! What else but write the story that Wilkes wants. Suchora walks the tightrope beautifully as Sheldon brings Wilkes into the creative process to help placate her wishes while he buys time to plan his next move.

As the play moves along the two characters actually seem to swap ideologies with each other. The transitions are done so smoothly by each actor that you don’t even notice right away – it sneaks up on the audience – just like other things in this taut thriller. The show, however, is not without a few laughs here and there, mainly in the early set-up moments. Those help to balance the darker moments.

Both actors give whirlwind performances. They are easy to buy as real people, even though Cintavey’s character seems a little over the top – but there are crazed people out there. And she creates a character that fits right into how some “fans” relate to celebs.

The only other character that shows up in “Misery” is Sheriff Buster played by an actor with the somewhat interesting name of Denny Llusic. Buster pops in and out at various times as he looks for the missing Sheldon. Llusic has made numerous mysterious appearances at the Playhouse in the past. Perhaps audiences will recognize him from other encounters.

Director Christopher Fidram has crafted a wonderful Halloween-ish show with his trio of actors. From appropriate mood-setting music to a tightly directed and swiftly moving production, “Misery” fits the bill for a late October show.

Set design by Matthew Mazuroski is very well thought out with a revolving set that takes the action from room to room with very little time lost between scenes.

Lighting design by Leslie Brown also does much to set mood and time of day, including lightning effects during a storm. Her design compliments the interior of a remote cabin to almost look like it is lit only with kerosene lanterns.

“Misery” hasn’t been performed in this area for quite a few years. That makes it a welcome inclusion to a theater schedule. The Playhouse and Fidram and company, have made the most of it by presenting a production of the tingly thriller that is sure to please anyone looking for a chilling evening during the Halloween season.

Misery will continue Oct. 28, Nov. 3, 4 at 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 29 and Nov. 5 at 2:30 p.m.

Pictured at top: Jenna Cintavey and Brian Suchora star in the Youngstown Playhouse’s production of “Misery.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.