“HAPPY DAYS” AT Yale Rep
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 by ourselves. If metaphysical thoughts sound intriguing, you will thoroughly enjoy “Happy Days,” at Yale Repertory Theatre.
There’s something for most everyone” in Samuel Beckett’s play, “Happy Days.” The religious, who are 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 either don’t get it, or might have confused the title with the 1950’s TV comedy/serial of the same name. It takes a little work to stimulate one’s imagination.Younger folks may not have the patience or the background to delve beneath the surface of this masterpiece. And, some people’s minds are on perpetual vacation.
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” (Dianne Wiest) waist deep, in a pile of sand while husband “Willy” (Jarlath Conroy) 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 head 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.
The wife, an eternal optimist, does almost all of the talking. When her husband finally responds with one or two words, or quotes a newspaper event, Winnie announces in a tone similar to “Candide” (“...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, Winnie awakens thankful for feeling less pain in her joints this day, 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 far away from her. 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, except the revolver, is methodically put back into the black bag in preparation for the day’s end.
“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 various 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, while we try to picture Beckett’s unusual metaphor.
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 intermingled with quotes from famous writers and philosophers.
When the curtain rises in Act II, it’s growing darker.Winnie is further submerged in the sand. The loud bell rings and the wife’s chatter become more somber as she recalls her childhood and wedding day. Life is fading with the sunset as Willy slowly crawls onstage dressed in his wedding, formal wear and painfully struggles to climb up the mound to supposedly reach his bride, only to fall back again. While the music box plays the Merry Widow Waltz, a very poignant metaphor, Winnie happily wonders if Willy wants to give her a final kiss. Or, we might ask ourselves, is he desperately attempting to reach for the revolver? You can develop your own theories and conclusions regarding the significance of “Happy Days,” when you attend this thought-provoking play at Yale Repertory Theatre.
Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting deserves special mention. His gradual sunrise and sunset, plus the suggestion of rising and falling ocean waves in the background are effective, contributing elements. Although it was hard to hear some of her softer words, Wiest’s performance as the forever optimist, “Winnie,” brought us to tears. While Conroy’s small part is not much of a challenge, he gives us a very, realistic “Willy.” Yale Repertory’s Artistic Director, James Bundy, directed this season’s final offering.
Plays through May 21 Tickets: 203-432-1234
This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” May/2016