“Another happy day,” Dianne Wiest exclaims as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s bleak, comic and compassionate play, written decades before Groundhog Day, but similarly focused on somebody who is trapped in an endlessly repeated day. But Winnie is also buried up to her waist in a mound of dirt. And then, in Act 2, it gets worse for her.
It’s a role, Wiest has said, that is “the ‘Hamlet’ for women….I had wanted to do ‘Happy Days’ for 30 years — I was terrified of it.”
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From the start, Winnie is isolated, her husband Willie (Jarlath Conroy) just out of reach and usually out of sight on the other side of the mound, reading a newspaper, his back to the audience, occasionally grunting. And Winnie has little to do. Yet none of that stops her from trying to be optimistic.
“Musn’t complain,” she says to herself shortly after the piercing sound of a bell awakens her to the new day. “So much to be thankful for.” She is determined to keep busy, with the help of her elegant parasol and the contents of her black handbag, containing the essentials of her existence – a toothbrush, a small mirror, a pair of glasses, lipstick, a bottle of medicine, a gun.
Why a gun? Who’s ringing that bell? What’s going on?
Some have claimed Beckett’s 1961 play as a metaphor for marriage. Others see it as a vision of totalitarian or apocalyptic times – written in an era when people felt threatened by the real possibility of nuclear annihilation. Recent readings associate it with climate change. I myself see a look at the process of aging. There is enough in the text to justify any of these interpretations.
After some 45 minutes of her daily ablutions and general prattling, Winnie tries to recall a line she remembers reading – “something something laughing wild amid severest woe.”
It is in fact a line from a poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” by the eighteenth century poet Thomas Gray, and the line seems to serve several purposes in Happy Days. It ironically sums up Winnie’s – and the human? – condition. That she has trouble recalling it seems a metaphor for the decay not just of individual but of collective memory — of civilization. (Later, Winnie says famously: “What is the unforgettable line?”) It also reveals the depth of Beckett’s erudition, the rich layers in Happy Days, despite a surface monotony, that arguably help explain why this strange play is so often performed. The main reason, though, is surely that actresses as varied as Jessica Tandy, Irene Worth, Peggy Ashcroft, Fiona Shaw and Lea Delaria have wanted to take on the challenge.
I last saw it just two years ago at The Flea in Soho, with Brooke Adams as Winnie and her husband Tony Shalhoub as Willie. Directed by Andrei Belgrader, it played up the comedy, aided by a uniquely hilarious Willie, Shalhoub offering a spot-on impersonation of your least personable relative.
Willie leaves little impression in the current production at the Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn, directed by James Bundy and originally presented at Yale Rep. Happy Days is the Winnie show, and Wiest– two–time Oscar winner (for “Hannah and her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway”) –makes the most of it. Winnie, dressed in a black evening gown, seems less of a happy prattler than the performances I’ve seen in the past and more a practical, no-nonsense woman — somebody who works hard at a sunny disposition, but is obviously beaten down. Wiest handles the comic moments deftly, but there seems real feeling when her Winnie momentarily drops her deliberate optimism to say “So little to say, so little to do, and the fear so great.” The fact that she is no longer wearing makeup after the intermission reinforces the sense that things have gotten worse – which is more obvious by the fact that she’s now buried up to her neck.
There is no question that Wiest delivers an impressive performance, especially when you read about her physical preparations for a role that requires her to be both expressive and virtually immobile for what is essentially a two-hour monologue.
Happy Days is on stage at Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217) through May 28, 2017.
Happy Days by Samuel Beckett; Directed by James Bundy. Featuring Dianne Wiest and Jarlath Conroy. Set design by Izmir Ickbal, costume design by Alexae Visel, lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge, sound design by Kate Marvin. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.