"Happy Days" Challenges its Audience

By Geary Danihy

During the oppressive months of summer, readers turn to the likes of Clancy, DeMille, King and Steele (Danielle, that is). It’s all they wish to handle, for as the temperature rises thoughts seem to coagulate and all we crave are simple, straightforward stories bereft of circuitous metaphors or free-floating angst. We turn to Proust, Mann and Dostoevsky in the darker, colder months, when the frigid winds and bleak landscape allow the mind to grapple with things existential.  We party in the summer and brood in the winter.

The Westport Country Playhouse, in its offering of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” is cutting against the grain, for this play as extended metaphor demands, during the sultry season, that playgoers think, ponder and wrestle with ambiguity. Sensing this, Mark Lamos, the Playhouse’s artistic director, as well as the director of this production, urged the audience to be patient in his curtain talk on opening night, concerned, perhaps, that coming off the recent heat wave those in attendance might slip into torpor, or confusion, as the play unfolded. He need not have worried, for this mesmerizing production speaks for itself, and its star, Dana Ivey, grips the audience from the moment the curtain rises.

What we have here is a modern fairy tale. Where once there was an old woman who lived in a shoe who had so many children she didn’t know what to do, we now have a woman imbedded up to her chest in rock who clings to the ephemera of things (collected in a large black handbag) and the regimen of time (measured by the ringing of a work-shift bell) to give meaning to her life. The original script called for the lady, Winnie, to be imbedded in sand, but scenic and costume designer John Arnone’s choice of rock enhances the sense of the woman’s inability to change her lot in life. Sand shifts, but rock is essentially immobile and eternal. It also reinforces the idea of Winnie as Ur-Earth Mother.

Winnie’s somewhat henpecked husband, Willie (Jack Wetherall) lives in a small cave on the back side of the mass of rock. He is, when he deigns to appear, taciturn to the point of frustration, whereas his wife is vociferous – she talks, therefore she is. In essence, the play is an extended monologue, with Willie offering occasional utterances (often nothing more than headlines from newspaper articles) that elicit delight from Winnie – her husband has condescended to speak to her and this makes it a “happy day.”

The play was originally written in two acts, but Lamos has wisely decided to compress the evening into one extended act with a curtain drop for a scene change. It is a psychologically wise decision, for the mood, in fact the entire gestalt of the play, hinges on the idea of a person being trapped by circumstances. The absence of an intermission – allowing patrons to stretch their legs, sip a beverage and chat – forces the audience to feel a bit of what Winnie is feeling. Winnie is constricted; so too is the audience.

In the first act, Ivey at least has the use of her shoulders and arms to develop character; the second act has her imbedded up to her neck. The fact that she holds sway over the audience – in both acts – given she cannot move (no blocking problems here) – makes her performance all the more miraculous.

As Lamos noted in his opening remarks, the play is, among other things, about words. In fact, it is all about words, so the audience must pay close attention to Winnie’s often rambling chatter, for hidden beneath the blather are the worries and concerns of modern man…and woman. The need to communicate to others and oneself; the need to find meaning in a life that might just have no meaning; the need to withhold judgment, to not be so quick to come to conclusions about people and their plight.

This last need is dramatized in Winnie’s remarks about a gentleman whose last name might be Shower or Cooker (names derived from the German “schauen” and “gucken” – to look or to peep). As Winnie begins her story, the house lights come half-way up so that the “lookers” (i.e. the audience) can be seen looking, staring at what is going on up on the stage in an attempt to derive some meaning. Winnie derisively suggests that such attempts are doomed to failure.

Obviously, “Happy Days” is not an easy play, if play it actually is. There is no traditional plot, per se, and terms such as “protagonist” and antagonist” seem beside the point. However, it is “theater,” if by this we mean people gathered together for a collective experience culminating in some sort of catharsis. The nature of said experience is open for discussion, for as Lamos suggested in his remarks, everyone may come away from the play with a different meaning or, he jested, no meaning at all.

During the evening’s final moments, as Willie desperately attempts to scale the rocks that imprison his wife, his hand reaches out—for what? His wife, or the revolver that rests near her head. Winnie is not sure and neither is the audience. Just as, in life, we are often unsure of another’s motives, even if that other is significant.

If you plan to see “Happy Days” – and you should – pick out a bistro to retreat to after the performance. I’m sure you’ll have a lot to talk about.

“Happy Days” runs through July 24. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

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