Arts and Humanities

PlayMakers’ ‘Misery’ brings horror home

The stage adaptation of Stephen King’s story of an author trapped by a fan includes an optional escape room that mimics his experience.

A woman stands over a wounded man in bed. Both on stage.
(Huth Photo)

Blank paper in a typewriter, a secluded house in the mountains, a dangerous caretaker – this is Paul Sheldon’s torture.  

Originally a Stephen King novel, “Misery” tells the tale of a romance novelist who is rescued from a car crash by his self-proclaimed No. 1 fan, then is held captive in her basement and forced to write a sequel. Annie Wilkes’ unhinged behavior terrified moviegoers when “Misery” first hit the big screen in 1990, and now PlayMakers Repertory Company is bringing the psychological thriller to the stage.  

Running through Oct. 31 — and appropriately celebrating its opening night on Friday the 13th—PlayMakers’ production of “Misery” promises an intimate, suspenseful experience during this spooky time of year.  

The final show of the run will come on Halloween night, with reserved parking in Cobb Deck and candy available for costume-wearing ticket holders.  

“What’s great about ‘Misery’ at this moment is the genre of horror is so rarely produced in the theater, and this is a great opportunity to see it live and in person,” said Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director at PlayMakers.  

“We can’t use the tricks that film and video use. We have to make it work in real time, without the sleight of hand. That demands a different kind of storytelling, and I actually think that’s something like reading a great novel, where the audience fills in a lot of it.” 

Escape room experience 

The play will put audience members inside the home of Wilkes – both figuratively and literally.  

To create an even deeper level of immersion, PlayMakers has constructed its first-ever escape room next to the theater that will open at 6 p.m. before every show. The room is designed to mimic Wilkes’ basement from the play, and participants must solve a series of riddles to escape. 

PlayMakers is partnering with Escape on Purpose, a local company run by a Carolina alum, to manage the room. Ticket holders will receive an email two days before the performance with the option to sign up for an escape room session, and each session will last for 15 minutes.  

The experience is designed to give audience members a taste of the fear Sheldon feels while trapped in Wilkes’ basement, but it’s just the appetizer. The true treat will be the cat-and-mouse warfare between Sheldon and Wilkes on stage. The adaptation is written by William Goldman, who also penned the screenplay for the film starring James Caan and Kathy Bates. 

Guest artist Karl Kenzler, who recently performed in a Broadway revival of “Fiddler in the Roof,” will make his PlayMakers debut as Sheldon. Julia Gibson, an 11-year resident company member, will star as Wilkes. 

Directed by Jeffrey Meanza, the play will also feature company member Adam Valentine as Sherriff Buster. But for the bulk of the two-hour performance, Kenzler and Gibson will take the spotlight.  

With so much focus on two characters, Benesch said it was important to find the right guest artist to play Sheldon. Kenzler emerged at the top of the list, in part because he’s known his co-star Gibson for nearly 30 years. Both actors have roots at NYU’s graduate acting program, and their pre-existing chemistry adds an extra spark to their dynamic on stage.  

“I think for everyone the potential of doing this genre on stage was too exciting to turn down,” Benesch said. “You need actors who are going to bring a deep trust and psychological depth, which they have. 

“They’re also both great comedians, which I think is essential for this piece, as well. Stylistically, for as much as it should induce gasps, it should also be a really fun ride.”