'Happy Days' at Westport Country Playhouse
by David A. Rosenberg
Who’s afraid of Samuel Beckett? Judging by what’s now happening at Westport Country Playhouse, apparently just about everybody, including the alternately bored and intrigued audience. Which is too bad, since the playwright’s “Happy Days” is – or should be – a threnody at once hilarious and touching, comforting and frightening. Artistic director Mark Lamos’ choice of the absurdist classic is commendable, yet his affectionate but tentative production is an opportunity lost.
This is a tale of Everywoman and, by extension, Everyhuman in the inexorable, courageous, confused, funny and terrifying march from cradle to grave. Although not as intricate as Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” it is similar in its concerns about the human condition.
In Act One, Winnie is buried up to her waist. In Act Two, only her head appears, suggesting that she’d sink into oblivion if there were an Act Three. In the first half, Winnie, a silly hat with impudent feather perched on her head, rummages through a capacious handbag, finding trivial, personal items: toothbrush, hairbrush, comb, lipstick, mirror – and revolver, her ”Brownie.” Examining items, she ponders the toothbrush’s inscriptions “fully guaranteed” and “genuine pure.” Should she use the Brownie to “put myself out of my misery”?
To pass the time, she primps, quotes from Shakespeare, Milton and Aristotle, yearns for “the old style” and wonders what husband Willie is up to while he’s crawling behind the mound. Oh, yes, he occasionally shows up to read want ads for jobs for which he’ll never apply, but he’s largely invisible until his appearance in formal clothes that suggest both wedding and funeral.
Winnie’s non-stop loquaciousness (the evening is more monologue than duologue) breaks the silence, both domestic and cosmic. “Words fail,” she says. She needs to keep going – don’t we all? – and needs Willie to listen in order to forestall “the shadows deepening among the rafters.”
The morning prayers with which she begins the day are illusory. Unfailingly optimistic (“another heavenly day”), she’s unaware that Whoever or Whatever runs the world cares not a pin about significance or our essential loneliness, merely starting and ending each day with a loud bell sound. But what alternative is there?
None of this should be taken as grim or dense. Despite its seeming immobility, the play skips along – or should. Winnie is a chirrupy soul, undaunted even when her parasol catches fire. She has fun with her possessions, with Willie, with the audience (“Someone is looking at me,” she says, as the houselights brighten.)
It’s a bravura role, attracting brilliant actresses from Ruth White to Irene Worth. At the playhouse, Winnie is played by award-winning Dana Ivey, who has had a long and distinguished career in a variety of roles: Restoration snob (“The Rivals”), cantankerous southerner (“Driving Miss Daisy”), caustic Catholic (“The Savannah Disputation”). The resourceful Ivey has the outline of Winnie, yet doesn’t fuse the combination of pathos and humor that reflects a dauntless woman facing sadness and change with undying fortitude. Missing the character’s extremes of poignancy and tragedy, she opts for a middle-of-the-road solidity. As Willie, Jack Wetherall brings dignity to his role as Winnie’s foil.
A major problem with the production is John Arnone’s perverse setting. Not that script directions have to be slavishly followed, but Beckett’s “expanse of scorched grass rising center to low mound” is here rendered as a pile of rocks possibly left over from a building deconstruction or an Egyptian tomb. Formal, lacking resonance, calling attention to itself, it’s at odds with the idea of Winnie’s sinking, instead indicating that something has been built around her.
Another drawback is Lamos’ well-intentioned pre-curtain speech in which he tries to ease the audience into the production by suggesting its possible themes. Instead of easing, however, he ends up scaring. Actually, Beckett decries such attempts to box him in when he has Winnie mock a frustrated couple who say to each other, “What’s she doing? What’s the idea? What’s it meant to mean?” Better to just sit back to let “Happy Days” waft over you.
This review appeared in The Hour, Thursday, July 15