If you ask me…
By Tom Holehan
Yale Rep Revives Beckett Classic “Happy Days”
Currently concluding its 2015-16 season, the Yale Repertory Theatre is reviving Samuel Beckett’s classic, existential head-scratcher, “Happy Days”, featuring the great Dianne Wiest as the lady up to her neck in metaphors. Simply put, the play hasn’t aged a day since its 1961 premiere and this is a performance not to be missed.
Winnie, a decidedly cheerful woman of a certain age (Wiest), is buried up to her bosom in a small mountain of sand with nothing but a large black handbag and a parasol by her side. In Winnie’s running monologue of mostly non sequiturs, Beckett explores optimism, aging, loneliness, the suppression of women and the journey of marriage among many other themes. Most of Winnie’s dialogue is directed towards her little-seen and heard husband, Willie (Jarlath Conroy, marvelous), who appears only occasionally and speaks primarily in a series of grunts and single exclamations. By act two Winnie is buried up to her neck, a sadder but wiser woman, still somewhat optimistic about her situation, still asking the big questions. Although Beckett provides few answers, the central metaphor is clear: Winnie is sinking in the slow sands of time, memory and regret.
A role likened to that of “King Lear”, any actress worth her Equity card will eventually take on the rigors of playing Winnie and, at Yale, Ms. Wiest is a revelation. We are familiar with this actor’s warmly sympathetic and maternal nature which she uses to good advantage throughout the play. The sensual side of Wiest, however, is something we don’t get to see too often and it’s a joy to witness here. Smartly costumed by Alexae Visel eschewing the old lady frocks usually selected for the role, Wiest is dressed in what appears to be a corseted black frock exposing her bare arms, shoulders and neck. The actress uses her arms and hands expressively stroking the sprigs of grass growing around her Mother Earth playground. This remarkable actress is one of the finest Winnies I’ve ever seen in what has always been a difficult but provocative play.
James Bundy’s perceptive direction works in perfect tandem with Wiest’s performance allowing her time to breathe and reflect between Winnie’s varied recollections and observations. Izmir Ickbal’s gloriously artificial scenic design, which includes a gorgeous expanse of blue sky and dying trees dotting the horizon, is everything Beckett could have imagined. Stephen Strawbridge’s precise, glaring light bathes Wiest in total warmth for the first act until she practically withers under it by play’s end. “Happy Days” will no doubt continue to challenge and confound viewers, but with an actress of Ms. Wiest’s considerable talents, it will also compel them to watch and listen.
“Happy Days” continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through May 21. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.