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A CurtainUp Review
Happy Days

Words fail, there are times when even they fail. . . . What is one to do then, until they come again? Brush and comb the hair, if it has not been done, or if there is some doubt, trim the nails if they are in need of trimming, these things tide one over.
— Winnie, buried to the waist in a mound of sand and soil, in Act One of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days
Dianne Wiest (Photo: Gerry Goodstein).
Happy Days by Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett is a two-hour aria for a virtuoso performer of mature years. The play includes a second, decidedly secondary, character, but he's hardly seen or heard. Dianne Wiest, currently appearing in the Yale Repertory Theatre production at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, has described Winnie, Beckett's protagonist, as "the Hamlet for actresses."

Winnie lives out of doors under a relentless sun in a landscape devoid of foliage and shade. Hers is an environment of heat and glare without the relief of nightfall. In creating Winnie's world, this production's capable design team — Izmir Ickbal (set), Alexae Visel (costumes), Stephen Strawbridge (lighting), and Kate Marvin (sound) — has adhered strictly to Beckett's intricate stage directions and the drawings he executed to guide director Alan Schneider in the original production.

Every day a loud bell (from who-knows-where) rings Winnie awake; an end-of-day bell signals the hour for sleep. With time compressed according to Beckett's dramaturgical whim, Happy Days depicts Winnie's routine over numerous days of her late, fast passing life.

Winnie is a chipper, prayerful soul for whom each morning promises "another heavenly day." Chattering in a freely-associative way, she's receptive to what's humorous in her environment. "How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes," she muses, "particularly the poorer ones?" But things aren't as copacetic as Winnie usually lets on. Sorrow, she admits, "keeps breaking in."

Happy Days is a monumental acting challenge for the principal performer. In Act One, Wiest is encased to her waist in a hill or mound, as though the grave has been claiming a little bit of Winnie every day since birth. By Act Two, she's up to her chin in earth, almost completely planted in the desiccated landscape, with nothing to do but wait out the hours until that final bell, when "you may close your eyes" or, rather, "you must close your eyes — and keep them closed."

In the first act, before her arms and shoulders are stilled by encroaching soil and clay, Winnie engages in sundry physical activities to keep sorrow at bay: she sorts through her carryall, fiddling with such things as brush, comb, lipstick, music box, and revolver. She grooms herself, situating and resituating a hat on her head. She observes the ants parading by (in her parlance, they're "emmets"). She sings, taking care not to commence her song either too soon or too late. And she keeps tabs on her husband, Willie (the excellent, if under-utilized, Jarlath Conroy), who inhabits a hole somewhere down the off-stage side of the mound.

Most of all, she pours her energy into expressing thoughts and feelings. Her stream of reminiscence, flighty speculation, and obscure literary allusions is both a weapon and a shield against disintegration of mental capacity, diminished articulateness, loss of memory, and other ravages of time and age. "Words fail," she says, "there are times when even they fail." Happy Days is about how the human spirit perseveres in the face of such failure.

In playing Winnie, Wiest joins a roster of distinguished stage performers who have undertaken the role over the 56 years since Ruth White appeared in the premiere. The list includes Brenda Bruce, Peggy Ashcroft, Madeleine Renaud, Billie Whitelaw, Fiona Shaw, Irene Worth, Estelle Parsons, Charlotte Rae and Juliet Stevenson. Brooke Adams played the part Off-Broadway (as well as in Los Angeles and Boston) only two years ago.

In a strapless bodice, Wiest is the zaftig, "well-preserved" presence Beckett describes in his script's opening stage directions. Her voice, with its familiar little-girl quality, has an appealing lilt; and her vocal range stretches from low, chesty growl to high, simpering whisper.

Under the assured direction of James Bundy, Wiest lends a determinedly naturalistic interpretation to Beckett's lines, absurdist as they often are. She finds immense poignance and much that's poetic beneath the surface banality of the text. But Happy Days is anti-naturalistic; and, in this instance, the straightforward, unadorned quality of Wiest's performance leaves money on the table. What's overlooked in her version of Winnie is the colossal debt that Beckett's script owes to vaudeville and the British music hall tradition. One can imagine Charlotte Rae or Estelle Parsons making hay with that vein of the play; but Wiest doesn't go near it.

With so much in Wiest's performance that's remarkable, it may be ungrateful to concentrate on what's missing. Take, for instance, what she does in Act Two, when her entire body is earthbound and only her head visible. Unable to engage in the vivacious gestures of Act One, Wiest conveys eye-opening intricacy of meaning and emotion with voice, facial expression, and tilt of the head. She manages many degrees of smile and grimace without clowning or going over the top. On second thought, though, a little clowning and some vaudevillian extravagance wouldn't be out of place in Beckett.

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Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
Director: James Bundy
Cast: Jarlath Conroy (Willie); Dianne Wiest (Winnie)
Set Designer: Izmir Ickbal
Costume Designer: Alexae Visel
Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound Designer: Kate Marvin
Production Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission
Presented by Yale Repertory Theatre
Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn).

>From 4/23/17; opened 5/4/17; closing 5/28/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at the May 2nd press performance

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