Susan Granger’s review of “Happy Days” at the Westport Country Playhouse

By Susan Granger

It’s understandable why the poetic works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, who won a Nobel Prize for “Waiting for Godot,” have never been presented before at the Westport Country Playhouse. With their enigmatic, oblique, obscure dialogue and minimalist style, they’re dense and difficult to understand, open to individual interpretation. Certainly not the usual ‘summer stock’ fare. Which is probably why artistic director Mark Lamos decided to take a risk, make a leap of faith and aim for the emotional essence of theater.

    In the beginning, Winnie (Dana Ivey), a plump, middle-aged housewife, is buried to her bosom in the center of a huge pile of rocks in a barren landscape with the sun blazing down. Within her reach are a parasol and a huge black handbag, from which she removes various items, including a brush, cosmetics and a revolver. While it’s her cheerful, optimism-infused chatter that we hear, her husband, Willie (Jack Wetherall), is perched on the other side of the rocks with only the back of his head showing. He’s reading a newspaper, grunting occasionally. The incessant clanging of a bell marks a change of time. While there is no intermission, the curtain comes down and up again quickly for the second act, which finds Winnie sunk up to her neck and formally dressed Willie crawling over to her side, attempting - in vain - to scale the rocks.

    Initially incomprehensible, the play is a haunting, existential allegory about the human condition. Within its rueful ramblings and repetitions, silences and precise movements is a compassionate commentary on life, relationships, loneliness and mortality. “So little to say, so little to do, and the fear is so great.” Beckett doesn’t make it easy for the audience to figure out; it takes thought. There’s wry humor and allusions to Shakespeare, Dante, Aristotle and the Anglican Litugy, among others, along with the “Merry Widow” waltz. 

    With a silly, little feathered hat atop her head, exuberant, ever resilient Dana Ivey uses her face and voice - with a soft Irish brogue - to animate a remarkable range of emotions, delivering a brilliant, inventive, bewitching tour-de-force performance. “Happy Days” is at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 24.

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