"Happy Days" at Yale Rep
By Tom Nissley
Samuel Beckett -- the great existentialist -- picked out the difficult metaphor of married life and its involuntary discounts when he placed Winnie (a spectacular Dianne Wiest) and Willie (Jarlath Conroy) into two lonely holes in a mound of earth and sand, under a bright blue sky, where they are living out their memories and waiting not for Godot, but for his partner, Death.
I suppose the meaning is much more clear to old folks than to the college crowd, or at least different. When Winnie, having brushed her teeth and put on her lipstick and hat, gets a gruff response from Willie, she bubbles with good feelings because Willie is talking to her today. Since seeing it a few days ago I feel guilty as I silently read the paper sitting next to my wife at breakfast, or maybe comment on some headline. That’s what Willie does, sitting naked -- outside the view of the audience -- reading his paper on the other side of the mound of sand. A friend whose husband has dementia said ‘it’s not funny -- it’s so real,’ and certainly that’s so. Winnie and Willie, so much a team, exuding despair, dependent on each other to keep the illusion of communication alive. Winnie does the talking. Sometimes reminding Willie that it’s time to cover up or how best to get back into his hole -- once smacking him with her parasol to get his attention. And often beaming when she hears his voice, and remembering how the bag in which she keeps her necessary stuff was a bag he gave her once. Rather than put it away, she takes the pistol he once referred to as the chance ‘to end his misery’ out and places it on the sand between them. If you’re the right age, it’s real.
And that includes the charming description of the onlookers -- a couple who came by who said things like ‘why doesn’t he dig her out?’ The next time you’re in a discussion about why doesn’t someone (else) solve the concerns of the elderly, think of these folks. ‘Shower or Cooker? Oh well, doesn’t matter…ends in er anyway.’ Social workers, who grumpily observe.
By the second act nothing has changed except that the sand pile has grown larger. Now Winnie is buried up to her neck. No more arms to reach into the bag, but she can still hope that Willie is there and might even come round to the front side of the mound so that she could see him again. Which he does, dressed in a morning coat and top hat, as if for a wedding, or perhaps a funeral, Willie tries to crawl up the mound, but can’t do it. To reach Winnie? To reach the pistol? For Winnie it is a happy day because she has seen him again.
The play is immaculately directed by James Bundy, who is the Dean of Yale’s School of Drama. Every nuance and pause and smile, following the notes in Beckett’s script, turns up in Ms. Wiest’s performance, and for that matter in Mr. Conroy’s too. With an exact earth mound (Izmir Ickbal) and sound design (Kate Marvin) and lighting (Stephen Strawbridge) and costumes (Alexae Visel) the production team has served up a “Happy Days” that deserves a medal for precision and impact.
By all means get to see it if you can. Tickets and information at www.yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre