So Much to Be Thankful For -- “Happy Days” Review

By Brooks Appelbaum

If you see one work of theater this year, make it James Bundy’s astonishing revival of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” running through May 21 and closing Yale Repertory Theatre’s 2015-2016 season. The play, which opened originally in 1961, is -- if possible -- more vibrantly and terrifyingly relevant today; and Bundy’s direction, while quiet, burnishes Beckett’s brilliance to a fare-thee-well.

One knows that Bundy has created his own masterpiece from the opening tableaux, in which he is aided by an astonishing set design by Izmir Ickbal and lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Famously, of course, Winnie lives, with determined joi de vive, buried up to her waist in a mountain of dirt amidst a blasted landscape. Often, in other productions, Winnie is surrounded by foreboding darkness.┬áBundy’s genius is to contrast the scorched earth with a cerulean sky so beautiful it is almost painful to look at. Winnie can look up at this sky, but she cannot see what we, in the audience, see behind her. With this sky, Bundy relieves our eyes and visually echoes Winnie’s bright optimism in a single coup de theatre.

Her husband, Willy, lives on “the other side” as Winnie calls it, and is rarely seen or heard from. However, their marriage, their aging, and the dissolution -- or is it the eternity? -- of their love lie at the center of the play. Bundy and his remarkable cast mine the script for every possible nuance, from humorous to heartbreaking and every note in between, including a wonderful segment of raunchy innuendo that sends both Winnie and Willie into breathless, raucous laughter.

Wiest, with her cozily cracking voice, sparkling eyes, hint of maternal warmth, and quicksilver intelligence, plays a Winnie you adore from the moment she begins speaking. While other actors accentuate Winnie’s desperation, Bundy directs Wiest to keep it under the surface as long as the script will allow. In Act One, at least, we only see her distress in fleeting moments and movements, as when her hands grasp nervously at the few remaining blades of scorched grass that grow within her reach.

Bundy also listens carefully to the text’s references to Winnie’s body and desires: Wiest’s Winnie has a gorgeously kittenish, sensual presence. Costume designer Alexae Visel costumes her in a black corset that draws attention to her ample bosom and leaves her creamy shoulders and arms bare. This Winnie has more reason for her optimism than sheer determination; for a time, she can still count her physical beauty as one of her “many mercies.”

Act Two gives us something altogether different, and here Conroy’s Willie provides a poignant and harrowing image that I challenge you to forget. And when Winnie’s sparkling eyes finally narrow and fade, we watch with terror, but without pity. “Happy Days” travels far beyond the comfort of catharsis. Winnie doesn’t want our pity, and neither does Beckett.

Whatever your feelings about Beckett’s work up to now, this production is not to be missed. While still attending to every complexity inherent in this scintillating exploration of the human mind, Bundy, Wiest, and Conroy go straight to the human heart.

“Happy Days” continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through May 21. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.

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