If, at times, theatre-going makes you painfully aware of the hours you spend sitting immobile in one spot, you start to have a teeny tiny inkling of how Winnie feels. The high-spirited heroine of Samuel Beckett’s play may have her head in the clouds, but the rest of her body is stuck in a deep, dense mound of earth, visible only from the waist up.
Somehow, at some earlier point in time — Beckett was never one for backstory — Winnie was free to walk, but now she’s become lodged here, under the hot sun, in the wilderness, staring straight ahead for all unending time. And you thought it was annoying when your leg went to sleep.
Fortunately, our Winnie (Delia Taylor), always the optimist, sees the glass as half free, not half-buried. We realize right away that, despite the strange circumstances, she will make the most of her tiny life. So with a frantic, hopeful hunger for order and control, she whiles away the days with only a thin assortment of props, fussing through the minutia strewn around her at arm’s reach and chatting non-stop about her daily hopes and fears.
An ill-conceived production of such a sad little tale could easily turn to mud, as several inevitably have in the 50 years since the play’s debut. But under the canny, probing touch of director Jose Carrasquillo, and with a wonderfully nuanced and funny performance from Taylor, the play blossoms into a deeply emotional tale about aging, dreaming, and what it means to compromise. It’s an apt opener to WSC Avant Bard’s new season at Artisphere — a production that tickles the absurdist funny bone lying dormant in all of us, but also troubles us long after the lights go down on that poor, stranded starlet in her inescapable mound.
With the exception of some small, fleeting moments of connection with her laconic husband Willie (also Carrasquillo), who crawls pathetically around in a cave behind the mound, Winnie’s got only herself for entertainment, and so do we. To say the actress cast as Winnie carries the show on her shoulders is an understatement — the audience must be captivated by her with nary an entrance, exit, or the slightest move across the stage.
It’s a Herculean challenge for an actor, and Taylor bites into it with a wink and a smile. Winnie could be played a thousand different ways — she might be anyone from a grave old matron to a sultry siren — and here Taylor goes the route of plucky, almost childlike enthusiasm, using her richly expressive face to unearth the sad humor and dying warmth in a character grown accustomed to constant disappointment.
Tony Cisek’s astonishing set design — and particularly his decision to fashion the enormous central mound out of the fabric from Winnie’s dress — enhances the look of her dreamy diminishing, like Alice in Wonderland caught after a sip from the Drink Me bottle.
What holds her back from escaping? The same forces that weighed her down in the first place, perhaps. That quiet, terrible sense of distress we feel growing throughout Beckett’s play is all the more bedeviling for its uncertainties. For 90 minutes we are wedged into in a world that’s losing its laws. The days start to blend together. Words fail, memories fade, and cause and effect begin to drift apart. Having been stuck for so long, with no past or future, Winnie’s only window now is the present moment. And yet amid all the cosmic oddities of her life, she has crafted a home out of the wilderness — a lived-in world no bigger than the broken human body.
It’s a joyful space, and a doomed space. We are relieved for Winnie. Or, maybe we are profoundly uneasy. With Taylor keeping time, it’s possible to feel both at once in strange new ways. Winnie’s predicament doesn’t grant her a pair of legs, but in no time at all it’s become a thrill to see her run with it.
Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Jose Carrasquillo
Produced by WSC Avant Bard
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Rating: Highly recommended
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes with one intermission.