“Every word,” Samuel Beckett once wrote, “is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”
In Beckett’s Happy Days, Winnie (Nancy Robinette) proceeds at a rate of about sixty stains per minute, and for good reason: without her words, the silence and nothingness would win.
Winnie is an irredeemable optimist whose cheery chatter only partially hides the despair gnawing at her soul. “What is that wonderful line?” she muses at one point. “Laughter amidst unbearable pain…?”
She has reason for pain: she is encased in the Earth up to her waist, immobilized with only her laconic husband Willie (Stephen Lorne Williams) and her handbag, full of decaying implements – her toothbrush, her comb, her hairbrush, her pistol – for company. Many of the denizens of Dante’s Inferno (Beckett was a Dante enthusiast) were similarly encased: in slush, in ice, in human excrement. But none were as upbeat as Winnie.
Willie, like Her Majesty in the final cut of “Abbey Road”, doesn’t have a lot to say. He lives in a hole in the ground (not much bigger than his body, from Winnie’s description). For much of the play he is invisible to Winnie, who has difficulty looking behind her, and only occasionally visible to us. In response to Winnie’s prattling, he will occasionally read selections from the newspaper. He also gives her the definition of “hog”, at her request; and, with increasing annoyance, lets her know that he can still hear her as she successively softens her voice.
All of Beckett’s work illuminates the human condition. The human condition which Beckett illuminates in Happy Days is loneliness, and specifically the loneliness of a long-term relationship. Winnie doesn’t care that Willie mostly ignores her whinnying; it is sufficient that he has ears upon which her voice might fall. Outside of her husband she has only her handbag and her memories. Upon her handbag she lavishes almost human affection; she refers to her gun as “Brownie” and talks about it as though it were an old friend.
Happy Days opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on September 17, 1961; Beckett had married his longtime companion Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil the previous March. Beckett was at that point fifty-four and his wife was six years older; at such an age marriage is, among other things, a bulwark against the endless no. I do not know if it was so for Beckett but it is for Winnie in Happy Days.
Which is why SCENA’s production is such a bold one. In the opening seconds, when Robinette’s Winnie opens her eyes upon the ringing of an unseen alarm, we see the surprise and disappointment on her face. This is not a self-deluding Winnie, oblivious to her predicament; this is a Winnie that knows the score, but who will proceed along her predetermined path anyway, discharging her ritual duties because, after all, what else is there to do?
Closes July 5, 2014
SCENA Theater at
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
1 hour, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
Robinette, an actor capable of exquisite subtlety, manages to balance the two disparate Winnies throughout the production. She smiles, but her eyes dart. She makes excuses for Willie when he ignores her, but you can see the muscles of her face strain. She tells a funny story about the Showers, or the Cookers – she isn’t sure – the last people she’s seen. He said rude things; they fought; and then they left hand-in-hand. Winnie’s smiling when she says this, but she does a vicious imitation of their voices, and you can tell that she was not at all pleased with this encounter.
Willie is sometimes a throwaway role, but SCENA gives it heft by using Williams, an actor with impressive credentials (he is a former member of the English National Theatre Company). He gives Willie’s indifference a robustness, so that he seems driven not by Winnie’s incessant chatter but by his own predicament, whatever it is.
In the brief second Act, Winnie is now buried up to her neck, the handbag out of her control but Brownie a few inches from her head. Willie is unresponsive, and presumed dead. But Winnie continues to talk – in this production, with even more speed and urgency. At the climax – which in more conventional productions can be awash in ambiguity – the mixture of fear and dread and anticipation on Winnie’s face allows us to complete the story.
SCENA is giving us the unhappiest Happy Days ever. Good for them.
Happy Days by Samuel Beckett . Directed by Robert McNamara . Featuring Nancy Robinette and Stephen Lorne Williams . Scenic design by Michael C. Stepwany . Costume design by Alisa Mandel . Lighting design by Marianne Meadows . Sound design by Denise R. Rose . Properties by Joyce Milford . Lena Salins is the stage manager and Michael Sperber is the production manager. Produced by SCENA Theater . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
NOTE: I highly recommend this play because of the quality of the production. I wish I could say the same for the environment at the Sprenger Theatre. On the evening I attended, the air conditioning had been set on “sub-arctic”, and the sounds of a lively party in the hallway outside the theater consistently penetrated the walls. The Atlas Performing Arts Center is a beautiful space, but it will not succeed as a theater venue until the management pays more attention to the needs of its audiences.