Whitefish Theatre Company Ventures into Stephen King’s World of Horror with ‘Misery’

The play is a rare foray into horror for the Whitefish Theatre Company, and it opens to audiences Feb. 23

By Mike Kordenbrock
The Whitefish Theatre Company is performing a stage adaptation of Stephen King's "Misery," with Sarina Hart playing Annie Wilkes, David Blair playing Paul Sheldon and Jesse Nelson playing Sheriff Buster. Directing the play is Kim Krueger. Photo courtesy of Matt Wetzler at Thewmatt Photography.

When Sarina Hart heard that the Whitefish Theatre Company was putting on a production of “Misery,” she knew right away that she wanted David Blair to be the Paul Sheldon to her Annie Wilkes.

That’s the kind of thought that some people might find startling given the particularly terrifying story that revolves around those two characters, but for the two longtime Whitefish friends and actors, the experience has been an enjoyable one, even if it’s felt a bit deranged at times. But it takes some trust between performers to go into the dark places required to tell the story of “Misery,” which is part of why Hart first thought of Blair.

“My very first reaction was ‘Oh my god, I want to do this with David Blair so bad. I want to scare the crap out of this town with David Blair.’” she said of her initial reaction.

For his part, Blair said that working alongside such a dear friend of almost two decades has been a treat. “It is also a little insane,” he added.  

For those familiar with the Stephen King novel “Misery,” which was adapted into the 1990 film “Misery” starring James Caan and Kathy Bates, Blair’s comments probably make sense. But for those less familiar, a little background is in order.

“Misery” is the story of an author, Paul Sheldon, who is trapped — tortured even — by his own success, and the expectations of his most dangerous fan, Wilkes. The drama sets up with Sheldon having crashed his car en route from Colorado back to his home in New York City, where he’s ready to embark on a new chapter of his literary career. After the crash, he finds himself battered, dazed, and in the care of one Wilkes at her isolated, rural home.

Wilkes nurses Sheldon back to health, but when it comes out that Sheldon plans to kill off his iconic character, Misery Chastain, Wilkes simply won’t accept it. She goes from tending to Sheldon to holding him captive until he rewrites a new ending to Misery’s story. If you’re asking yourself how Wilkes can keep Sheldon captive for so long, well, without getting into too much detail, it involves a sledgehammer and a block of wood. And yes, the WTC version of “Misery,” goes there, albeit with some prosthetics and a prop sledgehammer.

Learning how to wield a sledgehammer was something that Hart actually practiced for this role, borrowing one from someone with WTC and then taking it home to better understand the physicality it takes to wield a sledgehammer with the kind of force it takes to break bones.

The Whitefish Theatre Company is performing a stage adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery.” Photo courtesy of Matt Wetzler at Thewmatt Photography.

Aside from the physical work that has gone into the role, Hart described how inhabiting Wilkes’ character has also led her to some reflection about her own life, saying that it’s made her imagine what it would be like to be so isolated, and lacking in impulse control, and to descend into a dangerous state of mind like Wilkes.

“I feel so fortunate to have the friend group I have and the community around me,” Hart said.

The role has been psychologically and emotionally exhausting. In addition to the burden of portraying Wilkes across a spectrum of anger, sadness, loneliness and violence, Hart described the difficulty that comes from having so many lines, and, because of her opposite’s bedbound state, being responsible for much of the movement in the play. Still, she said she’s a fan of Stephen King, “Misery,” and the horror genre, which has made being a part of this production especially fun in the context of the roughly 20 years she’s been involved with WTC.

“It is a very unique production for WTC,” Hart said. “’Sweeney Todd’ and this are probably the first horror plays they’ve really done, and this is definitely the first straight horror play they’ve done.”

There’s just one more cast member in “Misery,” who joins Hart and Blair, and it’s Jesse Nelson. Whereas his other castmates have decades of experience with WTC and theater, Nelson said he’s a newcomer. A self-described adrenaline junkie who is new to acting, Nelson said that he was at the O’Shaughnessy Center killing time during his daughter’s “Nutcracker” rehearsal when he found out they were doing auditions for a play. He decided just to go for it and walked into the room not even knowing what play people were auditioning for. Nelson, who said he was in the Army National Guard in Louisiana and was part of a military police response to Hurricane Katrina. He was able to draw on some of that background for the role of Sheriff Buster, a character who has just three scenes, which Nelson characterized as part of a cat-and-mouse or spy-versus-spy game with Wilkes as he tries to figure out what exactly is going on in her house.

“I’m kind of looking forward to what I can audition for next. If I don’t get the part, I’ll volunteer,” Nelson said. “I’ve had such a good time, and the cast and the director, everybody at WTC has embraced me with open arms.”

The Whitefish Theatre Company is performing a stage adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery.” Photo courtesy of Matt Wetzler at Thewmatt Photography.

“Misery” was adapted for film, and for the stage, by William Goldman, a famed Hollywood screenwriter who authored “Marathon Man” and “The Princess Bride,” and also adapted both for the screen. Goldman, notably, also wrote the screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and “All the President’s Men.”

Kim Krueger, WTC’s artistic director, who is directing this play, said she had a bit of apprehension when she first had the idea of taking on “Misery,” largely because she had seen stage adaptations of movies come up short in the past.  

“I read it and I was like ‘It’s great. We have to do it,’” Krueger said. “It’s great writing and the story is just, you know, one of the most epic horror stories I think there is around.”

The WTC version of “Misery” takes on a bit of a claustrophobic feel, Krueger said, largely because Wilkes’ home is the entire set. The audience doesn’t get a change of scenery for the play’s roughly two hour run time.

The Whitefish Theatre Company is performing a stage adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery.” Photo courtesy of Matt Wetzler at Thewmatt Photography.

“When you’re reading a book or you’re seeing a movie, you know, there’s pages in between you and what’s happening, or in a movie, there’s a screen between you and what’s happening. And I think that when you have actual, real people, to watch do this show, it makes it even more intense and scary,” Krueger said.

Krueger, Blair and Miller are all big Stephen King fans, too, which has brought even more excitement to the play.

“We all dig Stephen King and just wanted to do something that would make him proud of this production,” Krueger said. “We’ll never know, but I feel pretty proud of it.”

Performances of “Misery” are scheduled for Feb. 23, Feb. 24, Feb. 25, Feb. 29, March 1 and March 2. All shows are at 7:30 p.m., with the exception of Sundays, when shows begin at 4 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students. The play is for mature audiences only. For more information, go to whitefishtheatreco.org/misery.