“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Nancy Robinette told me as we sat in a small pie shop down the block from The Atlas Performing Arts Center. We spoke a couple of hours before she was to do a preview of Happy Days by Samuel Beckett and about an hour after I spoke to Michael Urie in advance of his arrival in DC where he is now performing his hit solo play Buyer and Cellar. Urie had played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet opposite Robinette’s Nurse at the Folger Theatre about ten years ago. When I told him about his former colleague doing Happy Days, Urie remarked that this would be my day to talk to two people who are doing one-person plays.
Actually, Happy Days has a second character. It seems like a one-person play though because Winnie, Robinette’s character, does almost all of the talking. Pages and pages of the script are uninterrupted text for her. Beckett, inarguably one of the greatest and arguably the most influential playwright of the 20th Century, has a reputation that rests on four major works, of which Happy Days is one of only two that features a woman character. It is the only one that centers on a woman character. Consequently, it’s a role that attracts the most accomplished of female stage actors, from Irene Worth to Fiona Shaw. DC audiences have seen some of our finest local actors (June Hanson, Kerry Waters, Delia Taylor) tackle the part. Now, it’s Robinette’s turn.
Happy Days has opened and Tim Treanor, in his review on DCTS, proclaimed it a “first-rate production.” DCTS contributor Susan Galbraith weighed in claiming that Robinette “has never been better. Her Winnie is both contagiously funny and heartbreaking. Robinette has made Beckett’s stark poetry sing. I have seen the play performed perhaps a dozen times and by many accomplished actresses. It’s a play that is worthy of many revisits. No one beats Robinette and director McNamara in making clear the remarkable resonances of this work.”
The hardest thing Nancy Robinette has ever done. Nancy Robinette has never been better. I can’t think of anything that would motivate DC audiences more to jet over to Atlas. Because in case you’ve just beamed down from Mars, or maybe from somewhere outside the Beltway, Nancy Robinette is not only one of the many impressive performers who have spent most of their careers here in town.
She is special. Let’s face it. She’s the Meryl Streep of Washington theatre. Her career has paralleled the growth of the DC theatre scene. When superlatives are employed about a Robinette role, that means that you’re talking about the top tier of accomplishment on our stage.
I first saw Nancy as Masha in Joy Zinoman’s gorgeous production of The Sea Gull, back in the very early 1980s when Studio Theatre was on Church Street off of 14th. Since then, I, like most of you, have seen her all over town, playing leads at our biggest companies, such as Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Signature Theatre. New York City has called, and she’s done plays at New York Theatre Workshop and even on Broadway. She has also been seen on some of the smaller, edgier stages around town, such as Washington Shakespeare Company, Source Theatre Company, and, of course, Scena, with whom she is performing now.
She has periodically returned, in particular to Scena, demonstrating an institutional loyalty to that company and its mission. Robinette first worked at Scena in the 1980s, returned in the 1990s to do the Franz Xaver Kroetz play Through the Leaves with Marty Lodge (and a very large dog), and few of us who saw that will ever forget her in it. She was back again in the oughts, playing another iconic 20th Century lead in Mother Courage and Her Children. Her consistent appearances with Scena demonstrate as well a personal loyalty to its founder and Artistic Director, Robert McNamara, who is directing Happy Days. McNamara joined us during our interview.
Not joining the conversation was Stephen Lorne Williams, who plays Winnie’s husband, Willie. McNamara told me that Williams is a founding member of British playwright/actor Steven Berkoff’s group and that “we are really lucky to have him. The two are like a couple, like Didi and Gogo,” he continued, comparing the Happy Days pair to the main characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Further describing his experience directing this cast, McNamara told me that “it’s like having two veterans glaring at you as we seek the truth of Beckettland together.”
I asked if this was a project that the two had long been planning to tackle. “Yes,” replied Robinette, “we always talked about doing it for years and years. I always hoped to hold you to it!” McNamara responded, “I’m glad to be able to finally do it with you.”
“It’s always a pleasure to do Beckett,” McNamara continued, and he described this production as “a completion moment” for the company, which opened in 1987 with a rep that included Beckett’s Endgame. For her part, this is Robinette’s first experience performing in a play by Beckett. “It’s a pleasure to say the words and to hear them. The mystery of his plays taps into a deep soulfulness where you can’t put your finger on why you’re being moved. It goes so far into your soul. It somehow talks about what it is to be human.”
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
On the other hand, Robinette called the tour eye-opening. “I loved it. It is one of my favorite experiences. It was hard to make it work, to leave town.” But she did. And what an experience it was, in the twilight of the Cold War and at the end of Yugoslavia’s existence. Their tour went to Sarijevo, Trieste, and Maribor, offering audiences the opportunity to see Americans do an American play, while also offering an American version of a Yugoslav script. It’s those sorts of experiences and cultural exchanges along with the challenge of its repertoire that has made Scena unique among DC groups and that helps to explain why the company has inspired such loyalty from a performer of Robinette’s unique standing.
But you don’t need to cash in your frequent flyer miles to see their work. All you need to do is to head over to NE Washington. Beckett. Robinette. Scena. At the Atlas through July 13th.
— Christopher Henley was a founding company member of Scena Theatre and has known and worked with both Nancy Robinette and Robert McNamara since the 1980s.