HAPPY DAYS at WESTPORT COUNTRY PLAYHOUSE
By Roz Friedman
The play now on the boards at the Westport Country Playhouse is one of the most exciting and controversial productions of any of its 80 seasons. I personally found Happy Days, an 80 minute mysterious exploration of life, death, and love, exhilarating. Director Mark Lamos is a brilliant interpreter of the playwright Samuel Beckett’s intentions; as she has in all the many parts she has played, Dana Ivey shines as Winnie, a woman who delivers a demanding soliloquy. Although Jack Wetherall’s role as Willie, Winnie’s husband, is much smaller than Ivey’s, it is important, and we wait for his entrances and his responses with baited breath. He does not disappoint.
There are those who are baffled and bored by this work written in 1960. Great discussion of the pros and cons was taking place as we left the theater and made our way to the restaurant next door to the playhouse; the conversation among strangers continued between tables, a testament to the structure and content of Happy Days.
The question on everyone’s lips was “What does it mean?”
This is not a traditional work. We encounter Winnie, the hopeful heroine of the piece, encased atop a huge Sarcophagus-like pile of white rocks. Designed by John Arnone (Costumes, too) and lit glowingly by Stephen Strawbridge, the stones create a magnetic quality. They resemble the limestone that was thought in ancient times to decompose the flesh of a corpse interred within it. The warning sound of a loud bell begins and ends Winnie’s day, filled with nothing but bright sun. She is dressed in a light-colored sundress; we can only see her from the waist up. Despite her condition, she is amazingly cheerful, announcing at the outset “Another Heavenly Day.” It seems that is a clue to where she really is. But that is never determined. The playwright reaches into our imagination. Is she dead or alive? Out of a generously-sized black bag, Winnie pulls a little white hat with a perky red feather, an umbrella, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a mirror, a comb and brush, a lipstick, all of which she uses. There is also a gun…unloaded. With a pair of spectacles, she tries in vain to read all the words on the toothbrush.
But the poignant strand that runs through the piece is Winnie’s deep concern for her husband, Willie, with whom she admits freely she must communicate. He barely speaks, but as long as he listens to her, she can get through the day. He is down below, and ascends the rocks to read apocalyptic headlines from the newspaper. Then he disappears into a hole, Winnie directing him. The only other life force is one tiny ant that scampers in front of her. The curtain comes down for a few minutes and then the 2nd Act begins. Winnie is now more deeply submerged into the stone. We think Willie is dead, but he appears and tries to climb the rocks to be with her or to get the gun.
The bell rings. Wonderful, Winnie says. Wonderful, I think. Life goes on, no matter what the circumstances. Happy Days at the Westport Country Playhouse through 7/ 24.
(This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1 Fine Arts radio.)