“HAPPY DAYS” AT WESTPORT

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

Despite our constantly troubled world, we get up each morning and automatically occupy ourselves with personal habits and a multitude of regulations imposed on us by society.  Although we seek pleasure in having “happy days,” much of our time is wasted on meaningless distractions.  Many of us make ourselves so busy that we seldom stop to question why we are here in the first place, and we certainly try not to think about where we are finally headed.  On our solo journey through life, we create our own baggage of “stuff” and carry it around like a security blanket.  As we age, we finally realize that everything around us is subject to the uncontrollable passage of time.  And yet, we retain within us the final control to end it all.  What an irony!  If metaphysical thoughts sound intriguing, you will thoroughly enjoy “Happy Days,” at Westport Country Playhouse.

As Westport Country Playhouse Director Mark Lamos eloquently explained before curtain time, “There’s something for most everyone” in Samuel Beckett’s play, “Happy Days.”  The religious, secure in knowing that all their questions have already been answered, might laugh at the play’s absurd depiction of the human condition.  Other wandering souls might identify with the uncontrollable plight of growing older and perhaps shed a tear regarding their own journeys through life.  Some folks simply don’t get it. They might have confused the title with the 1950’s TV comedy of the same name.  Younger folks may not have the patience or the background to delve beneath the surface of this daring event.  And, some people’s minds are on perpetual vacation.  Never the less, to his credit, Mr. Lamos shrewdly realized the variety of folks he was up against when he prepared the audience for his unusual, summer presentation.
  
Like his prize-winning “Waiting for Godot,” Beckett’s plays are often referred to as “theatre of the absurd.”   Therefore, when the curtain rises on “Happy Days,” we are immediately confronted by the absurdity of our existence.  We see “Winnie” (Dana Ivey) waist deep, in a pile of boulders while husband “Willy” (Jack Wetherall) lives in a small hole that is located on the hidden side of the mound.  All we see of Willy in the first act is the back of his baldhead above a boulder, and the newspaper he is reading.  It’s left for us to figure out how or why the couple got there and what the mound symbolizes.

Throughout the play, the wife, an eternal optimist, does almost all of the talking.  When her husband finally responds with one or two words, Winnie announces in a voice similar to Candide’s (“…the best of all possible worlds”) “…this is going to be a happy day” -- hence, the plays title.  Despite her being restricted to the mound, she awakens thankful for feeling less pain in her joints and performs her daily prayers.  Reaching into her large, black bag, Winnie pulls out a comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, some medicine, lipstick, nail file, music box and a revolver that she mysteriously places on a rock ledge.  Finally, she crowns her head with a silly hat and as the sun grows higher, protects herself with a parasol.  During her lively chatter, Winnie’s routine is periodically controlled by a loud, annoying bell that indicates the passage of time.  As the sun begins to set, everything is methodically put back into the bag except the revolver.

“Are you there, Willy,” she cries out intermittently throughout the play. “What will I do when I have no one to listen to me,” she laments briefly, while issuing survival instructions to her husband.  “Go backwards into the hole Willy … and put Vaseline on your rear end to make it easier to go in and out” she shouts.  What does all this strangeness mean?  One can interpret it as being a typical situation for couples that have grown used to each other.  The husband, seeking peace and quiet, retires to his den with the newspaper and TV while the caring wife fusses over him and craves his attention.  The symbolism of Vaseline and going in and out of the “hole” is left to your imagination.  Similarly woven into the play are references to things being used up, thoughts about love, sex, and passage of time -- an entire philosophy about one’s existence.

When the curtain rises in Act II, it’s growing darker. Winnie is further submerged in the rocks.  The bell rings and the wife’s chatter become more somber as she recalls her childhood and wedding day.  Willy slowly crawls onstage dressed in formal wear and tries to climb up the rock pile.  While the music box plays the Merry Widow Waltz, Winnie happily wonders if he wants to give her a kiss.  Or, is he really attempting to reach for the revolver?  You can develop your own worthwhile theories and come to your own conclusions when you attend this thought-provoking play.

Dana Ivey’s performance, under the direction of Mark Lamos is very moving while Jack Wetherall’s small part is not much of a challenge.  John Arnone’s rock pile is innovative although an earth mound would have had more significance and is closer to Beckett’s original intention.  Someone in the audience, no doubt an environmentalist, mistook the rocks for a pile of garbage, which would have been even more innovative.

Plays until July 24.
This review appears in the July “On Connecticut Theatre”

 

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