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Theatre in Review: Happy Days (Theatre for a New Audience)

Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

I've seen all sorts of actresses take on the role of Winnie, the semi-buried matron who is the principal subject of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, but none have made the character quite as purposeful as Dianne Wiest. Awakened from her sleep by the sonorous throb of a gong, she immediately gets down to the business of her bleak little life. "Begin, Winnie. Begin your day," she says to herself, in the tone of a parent dealing with a particularly recalcitrant child. There's not a great deal one can do when planted in the ground up to one's waist, but, nevertheless, she attacks her daily ritual as if she has someplace marvelous to be. ("The earth is very tight today, can it be I have put on flesh, I trust not.") She makes a play in itself out of brushing her teeth, then becomes utterly absorbed in trying to read the words on the toothbrush. ("Guaranteed...genuine...pure...what?"). She first resorts to a pair of spectacles, then produces a magnifying glass, eying the toothbrush like Sherlock Holmes eyeing a clue, in at fruitless attempt at identifying that final word.

The deft, utterly natural way that Wiest handles these bits of business are, I submit, the key to this production. Many actresses, succumbing to the pressure of playing a stationary character and dealing with a text that, to put it mildly, lacks significant action, opt for broad comedy; others, begging for the audience's sympathy, can infect Winnie with a fatal case of the cutes. Wiest is often very funny, but she doesn't ask you to laugh; her Winnie is august, at times grandly above it all. She doesn't ask to be loved, or even admired -- which, under the circumstances, makes her pretty much irresistible.

Winnie is often at her most amusing when dealing with Willie, her present-yet-absent husband, here played by Jarlath Conroy. (He occupies a hole on the backside of the mound they share, and is seen only in fleeting glimpses.) Wiest seizes her opportunities, whether reacting in disgust to the dirty postcard with which he amuses himself, directing him into his hole ("Oh, I know it is not easy, dear, crawling backwards, but it is rewarding in the end."), and counting her blessings, such as they are. ("Just to know that you are there within hearing and conceivably on the semi-alert is...er...paradise enow.") More than once, Winnie quotes that famous line from Thomas Gray's "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" ("laughing wild amidst severest woe") -- words that Wiest, given the script's coupling of despair with knockabout comedy, has seemingly taken to heart.

Winnie is also prey to the depredations that stalk us all, the erosions of beauty and vigor, the fading of memory. "What is the unforgettable line?" she asks, staring off into the distance as memory fails her. As her day wears on and she executes one task after another, a terrible sadness creeps in, a memory of how much has been surrendered -- her youth, Willie's ardor, a life that, at least as she remembers it, was once beautiful. Noting that while conversing with Willie is tantamount to talking to the wall, she adds, heartbreakingly, that there are "days too when you answer. So that I may say at all times, even when you do not answer and perhaps hear nothing, something of this is being heard...." That last phrase, in its faint note of hope, might be the cruelest thing Beckett ever wrote.

Wiest is the most soigné Winnie I have ever encountered, looking elegant -- if a little dusty -- in a black strapless evening gown designed by Alexae Visel -- complete with a chic little chapeau that she might have picked up at Hattie Carnegie's salon. It's all the more shocking, then, when we return, after intermission, to find her buried up to her neck, her face having seemingly aged decades. Still, Winnie remains indomitable. "Hail, holy light," she murmurs. "Someone is looking at me still. Caring for me still. That is what I find so wonderful." This is the power of James Bundy's production: We've seen Happy Days many times, we know that Winnie will become little more than a head poking out of the ground -- and who's to say that even worse isn't yet to come? -- and still the sight of Wiest, her eyes closed, still struggling on, is enough to briefly take one's breath away.

Bundy has directed Happy Days very much in the classic style ("in the old style," as Winnie likes to say, raising clouds of nostalgia), set as it is on a desolate outcropping designed by Izmir Ickbal, blanched by the sunlight delivered by Stephen Strawbridge's illumination. (Kate Marvin delivers the baleful gong tones that arouse Winnie each morning.) Still, it fascinating to see how he and his star deliver a characterization that feels both classically Beckett and yet its own distinct creation.

Happy Days is not an easy play; the last of Beckett's full-length works, it both enthralls with its language and irritates with its insistence that nothing will come from nothing. (All right, then: We are solitary figures in a vast, unknowing universe -- but does it really take two hours to drive the point home?) Others will disagree, but I feel that the playwright's greatest successes came later, with such briefer, more concentrated works as Play, Not I, and Rockaby, in which his astoundingly bleak conclusions can be experienced without the longeurs that sometimes accompany their predecessors. But as long as we have actresses of a certain age and accomplishment, they will want to take on the challenge of Winnie, and, in this instance, this is a very good thing. I leave you with the image of Winnie raising her parasol against the sun, only to watch it ignite. "It is not every day I rise to such heights," she muses. Something tells me that Dianne Wiest is currently rising to such heights eight times a week. -- David Barbour


(8 May 2017)

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