'Happy Days' at Yale Rep
by David A. Rosenberg
An experience at once hilarious and touching, comforting and frightening, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at Yale Rep blazes with life, even when it’s dealing with impending death. Featuring Dianne Wiest in a heartbreaking performance, this is a tale of Everywoman and, by extension, Everyhuman, in the inexorable, courageous, confused, funny and terrifying march from cradle to grave.
In Act One, Winnie is buried up to her waist in a mound. In Act Two, only her head appears, suggesting that she’d sink into oblivion if there were an Act Three. In the first, slower-paced half, the rather silly Winnie, an impudent hat perched on her head, rummages through a capacious handbag, finding trivial items: toothbrush, hairbrush, comb, lipstick, mirror -- and revolver, her “Brownie.” At times, she sees items with a new eye – what do the toothbrush’s “fully guaranteed” and “genuine pure” really mean? Would 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 roams far afield, from mundane reminiscences about her marriage to ruminations about the cosmos. “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 essential loneliness. Each day starts and ends the same, with the loud sound of a bell, until fate begins to take over.
None of this should be taken as grim or dense. Despite her immobility, Winnie is a chirrupy soul, undaunted even when her parasol catches fire. She has fun with her possessions and with Willie. Yet, when she says, “Someone is looking at me,” does she mean the audience -- or God?
It’s a bravura role, attracting brilliant actresses from Ruth White to Irene Worth. At Yale, the award-winning Wiest not only runs the scales of Winnie’s moods but finds a combination of pathos and humor that reflects a dauntless woman facing sadness and change with undying fortitude and, yes, optimism. Ditsy and comic in the first act, she’s poignant and tragic in the second. Her red-rimmed eyes anticipate the future, regretting leaving husband Willie; her still-active mind contemplates its loss.
As husband Willie, Jarlath Conroy is both cantankerous and caring, bringing dignity to his role as Winnie’s foil. His attempt to reach her towards the end, yearning to return to their past, is agonizing.
Beckett’s call for an “expanse of scorched grass rising center to low mound” is here rendered in exquisite detail by Izmir Ickbal, with lighting by Stephen Strawbridge that captures the journey from sun to shadow.
None of this would work as well as it does (other productions have foundered) without sensitive, rhythmic direction by James Bundy. Approaching the work not as some obscure avant-garde piece but as an existential portrait of human beings doing their best to “fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” Bundy finds the essence of Beckett, as does Wiest, whose devastating performance makes this a Happy Days not to be missed.