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A CurtainUp Review
By Allan Wallach
"Another heavenly day,"' Winnie says at the beginning of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days.
And why not? True, she is embedded in a mound of earth up to her waist. But at least she has her black handbag, filled with articles she can examine and reexamine, not least of them a revolver. She has her little routines to get her through the day--to speak, as she says, `"in the old style." ' In this post-apocalypse world of blazing sun and scorched earth, there is no longer day and night, only a piercing bell for waking and another bell for sleeping. And she has her husband Willie, although he rarely emerges from his hole and has little to say. At least he is there. Winnie, a buxom, fiftysomething woman who talks from bell to bell as if to prove to herself she is still alive, can console herself with that.
`"Something of this is being heard,"' she says, `"I am not merely talking to myself . . .that is what enables me to go on, go on talking that is."
Mabou Mines, a theater company that has taken on one challenging work after another since 1970, has now tried to scale that formidable mound in Beckett's 1961 play. The company may have thought it a suitable showcase for its leading actress and cofounder, Ruth Maleczech. The role of Winnie, essentially a long, rambling monologue, has been called the toughest ever written for a woman. But the production at Manhattan's PS 122 -- done previously with the same two-member cast and creative team at the La Jolla Playhouse in California -- falls well short of the summit.
The problem is that Maleczech and director Robert Woodruff have conceived Winnie as far too simple a woman. Winnie, it's true, is the quintessential cockeyed optimist, seizing on any pretext to exclaim, `"Oh this is going to be another happy day!"' But we have to feel some substance beneath the simplicity, or why care?
I've seen a number of Winnies, going all the way back to Ruth White in the original production at Manhattan's Cherry Lane Theater. All of the previous actresses -- though as different as Jessica Tandy and Irene Worth -- conveyed the dimension that gives the play its spine. Winnie was poised between optimism and despair, between the foolishness of petty concerns and the grandeur of going on, as the play itself was balanced between comedy and tragedy.
Playing Winnie in Act One with a what-me-worry grin, fluttery gestures and obvious line readings, Maleczech reduces Winnie to a prattler. She aims mostly for comedy, and she does get some laughs. But the character -- like Beckett's language -- is diminished. The actress is better in Act Two, (which follows a brief pause instead of an intermission), when Winnie is imbedded up to her neck. Her jaw clenched and her talk reduced to a stream of sentence fragments, Maleczech turns harsher, a woman aware that hope is flickering.
As Willie, Tom Fitzpatrick does all he can with a role that depends more on his appearance and gestures than his words. In a departure from previous Willies, he is given a beet-red skin and pustules that suggest either the sun's unremitting heat or the aftermath of some nuclear catastrophe. He is fine at the end when Willie emerges (`"dressed to kill," Beckett wrote) in morning coat, top hat and striped trousers. But I think Woodruff shouldn't have made it so obvious that Willie, in attempting to climb the mound, is reaching for Winnie's revolver rather than for her. It's better to leave us wondering.
The mound itself, in Douglas Stein's set design, is a pile of plastic segments looking like shattered windshields or windows -- the detritus of a collapsed civilization. It's an interesting set, but the expanse of scorched earth that Beckett specified conveyed better the bleak and uninhabitable world of the play.
As with all of Beckett's plays, Happy Days contains a lot more than appears on the surface. Shards from Winnie's long monologue are like road markers pointing the way to Beckett's intent. They have to do with our search for meaning and with the daily habits that keep us going when we don't perceive any meaning. Some of this comes through in the Mabou Mines production, but it doesn't have the weight it did in other days - to speak in the old style.