Review: Misery Takes Audiences on a Thrill Ride at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

A most unusual “holiday” production has popped up at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, one of Milwaukee’s longest-running local theaters. While other local theaters are dramatizing Dickens, bringing a nutcracker to life or hosting sing-alongs to Disney favorites, Chamber Theatre’s production of Misery seems to evoke Halloween more than the cheery winter holidays.

The tale of a novelist at first saved—and then trapped—in an obsessive fan’s home first began as the plot of a 1987 Stephen King novel. The current production, adapted by William Goldman, sends a shivering chill down the collective audience members’ spines in a show that is filled with psychological tension from the first moment to the last.
Contributing some of the chill is the theater itself, an intimate black box space located inside a larger performing arts complex in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. This is where a cast of (mostly) two performers play out the novel’s events.
Another contributing chill factor is Lisa Schlenker’s set. It is claustrophobically composed of two small rooms, a bedroom and kitchen, in what looks like an old, dilapidated house. All of the appliances and spare furnishings are throwbacks to an earlier era, down to a rotary phone in the kitchen. There’s even a background glow to illuminate cracks in the badly repaired wood-slat walls. In the bedroom, a hand-painted floral motif on the walls looks faint and dingy.

To complete the scene, Misery opens with the sounds of loud thunderclaps and screams that one might encounter on a visit to see the Addams family. Noele Stollmack’s lighting and Josh Schmidt’s sound design do a wonderful job of emphasizing the set’s creepiness.

Jonathan Wainwright (as Paul Sheldon) and Kelly Doherty (as Annie Wilkes). Photo by Michael Brosilow

But that says nothing about the two central characters: Paul Sheldon, an injured novelist who wrecks his car in a freak Colorado snowstorm, and Annie Wilkes, the homeowner who saves him and nurses him to health.

As the play begins, Sheldon is waking up in an isolated farmhouse near the Colorado Rockies. He had just written the final chapters of his new book in a nearby hotel, and was driving home to New York City when the storm hit. His car swerves into a deep ditch. He has no recollection of what follows.

Wilkes tells the still-groggy writer that she dragged him into her car and, eventually, took him home. Sheldon is lying in bed, assessing his physical injuries. They include a shattered shoulder and two broken legs. At first, he is completely helpless, and must rely on his hostess for everything: eating, bathing, dressing, etc. Wilkes says he is lucky to have been rescued by a former nurse.

Meanwhile, Wilkes keeps gushing, “I’m your number-one fan.” Not only has she memorized all of Sheldon’s Victorian-era novels, which feature a main character called “Misery,” she knows every last detail of Sheldon’s behavior. This last fact comes into play several times, as Sheldon attempts to secure his freedom. Ironically, it is his own words—some that he once mentioned in TV interviews—that come back to haunt him.

Wilkes is not only devious, but smart. “I know I look slow and stupid to you, but I’m not,” Wilkes tells her houseguest. When she leaves the house to fetch supplies, she can tell upon her return that Sheldon has tried to escape. But nothing about Wilkes' behavior and observations is revealed right away. Like Sheldon, the audience comes to know and fear her gradually, as the drama unfolds. Artistic director Brent Hazelton’s taut direction is apparent in every move.

Many of the scenes are underscored by Schmidt’s suspenseful music, which occasionally alternates with upbeat recordings by Wilkes' favorite composer, the Milwaukee-born Liberace. This lightens the mood, momentarily. It gives us a chance to catch our breath collectively before the next gut-punching moment. Watching this play is very much akin to riding a roller-coaster.

Wilkes can dish out some harmful physical punishment at any time. Sometimes, it comes mere moments after sweetly referring to Sheldon as “darling” or “pumpkin.” Wilkes’ hair-trigger temper flares often, and any time she refers to Sheldon angrily as “Mr. Man,” something bad will surely occur.

The physical contrast between actor Kelly Doherty (as Annie Wilkes) and Jonathan Wainwright (as Paul Sheldon) makes some of the plot twists more believable. Doherty is similar in appearance to her counterpart, actor Kathy Bates, who starred in the 1990 film of “Misery.” (Bates won an Oscar for her portrayal.) One can imagine Doherty’s ability to drag someone out of a car. Doherty is superb at balancing between her character’s mood swings.

An inquisitive local sheriff (Christopher Elst) pays a call on Annie Wilkes (Kelly Doherty). Photo by Michael Brosilow

The tall, stringy Wainwright makes his character even more believable (and fragile) than the strapping figure of actor James Caan, who played Sheldon in the film.

Wainwright displays a masterful ability to physically move his body. With credible yelps, cries and winces, he gingerly attempts to lift his body off the bed and out of the bedroom. One sees that this requires every ounce of Wainwright’s effort, and he fails to make it even to the home’s front door.

Still, he repeats the maneuver (with incremental success) several times during the play. One imagines that Wainwright must be ready to collapse after each performance.

Returning to the delusional Wilkes, she deduces that even her best efforts will not result in making Sheldon her permanent houseguest. To buy time, Sheldon agrees to write a new novel that reincarnates Wilkes' heroine, Misery. (He has just released a book in the series that kills off his long-time character.) This catches Wilkes off guard, and she is pleased that her “favorite author” will let her read each new chapter as it is completed.

A surprise visit by the town sheriff (played by actor Christopher Elst) ups the ante for both of the main characters. The sheriff discovers Sheldon in the bedroom, and chaos ensues. When Wilkes pulls out a shotgun to carry out her murder-suicide pact, Sheldon delays her with news that the new novel is almost finished. The final scenes speed to a stunning conclusion.

In addition to the 1990 film of Misery, a theatrical version opened on Broadway in 2015. It starred Bruce Willis (Die Hard, etc.) and Laurie Metcalf, a Steppenwolf founding ensemble member who also played the sister in TV’s long-running show, “Roseanne.” While critical reviews of the Broadway version were mixed, Milwaukee’s production (a Wisconsin premiere) deserves only praise. Every element aligns to draw the audience into this spine-tingling production. Even though some audience members will know the outcome in advance, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre creates a hecko f a ride in getting there.

Misery continues in the Studio Theatre at 158 N. Broadway St., through December 18. Running time is 95 minutes, with no intermission. Mask-wearing is required inside the theater. For more information on this and other productions, see

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.