“Happy Days” – One of the Most Challenging Roles for Actresses

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Dianne Wiest. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Karen Isaacs

 Diane Wiest has returned to Yale Rep, after a much too long absence, to play Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days through Saturday, May 21.

Beckett, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, is considered one of the fathers of the theater of the absurd, that mid-20th century movement that also included playwrights  Eugène IonescoJean Genet, and others.  The message was both simple and existential:  human existence is essentially meaningless and formless; verbal communication is inadequate; life is illogical, chaotic, uncertain and hopeless. The term does not refer to the more common mean of “absurd” as ridiculous.

Beckett mixed endless talk with puns, repetition of the obvious and circular thinking. In Beckett’s plays, plot can be described in a sentence or two; it is less important than the existential angst of the characters.  Yet, there is humor and in some of his plays – Waiting for Godot, for example – there are elements of vaudeville or commedia dell’arte.

Dianne Wiest. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As the play opens, Winnie is waist deep in sand or earth on a barren landscape. She awakens and begins her morning rituals – brushing her teeth, looking in a small mirror, taking out a revolver, putting on her hat – all the while chattering away to her husband Willie who is on the far side of the sand dune.  Winnie cannot move from the pit, but she smiles and says this is “another happy day.”  Willie reads classified ads from an old newspaper, looks at and shares with Winnie an erotic photo and sings a song.  Though Winnie can barely see Willie, she tells him he helps her to go on. The day progress, she keeps chattering and soon it is time for sleep.

Act two finds Winnie buried to her neck in the dune. Though she can’t move and has no use of her arms, she continues to chatter on to Willie and still considers this a “happy day.” The play ends with Willie attempting to climb the dune – is he trying to reach Winnie or the revolver?

One can find numerous metaphors and symbols in Beckett’s work.  From the repetition and futility of daily life to the obvious idea of death approaching all of us, his view of the human condition might be considered by some to be bleak.

Since Willie has minimal dialogue, only some sounds, and is barely seen, one might question if he is essential to the play.  Couldn’t it just be a monologue by Winnie?  Yet, Willie is essential to the play; Winnie needs that human connection, that relationship even though she can barely see him.  Just knowing he is there, gives her a reason to go on.

And what is the point of the revolver that Winnie takes out of her bag and places on the dune where it remains during the second act out of reach to both Winnie and Willie?  Chekhov has been famously quoted as saying if there is a gun on the stage, it must go off at some point. This one does not.  Does it represent the ability to control one’s end? If so, it is tantalizingly out of reach.

James Bundy, artistic director of Yale Rep, has directed this production with a sure hand.

Jarlath Conroy. Photo by Joan Marcus.

He wrote in his program notes, that part of the play’s allure is the “weaving of simple physical action with complicated characters and their fragile memories. Another is the dance of illusion and reality in performance.”  Bundy also mentions Beckett’s interest in our “common vulnerability.”

Diane Wiest shows us all elements of Winnie. She is part seductress and part housewife. She is lost in memories but also thinking of the future. She is flirtatious and vulnerable and yet she is also strong and enduring.  Like the Biblical Job, she continues to look at the bright side, often counting her “mercies.”

In act one, Wiest has both her voice, her expressions, her arms, and an attractive strapless top to help her achieve this conflicted character which has been referred to as a “summit part” for actresses.  In act two, she only has her face, voice and eyes to draw you into Winnie’s mind.

She succeeds so well, that you want to cry for her.

Wiest’s work at Yale Rep has always been exemplary. In the 1980s, she gave incredible performances as Nora in A Doll’s House and Hedda in Hedda Gabler.  I still recall these productions.

Jarlath Conroy plays Willie. He is the rock upon which Winnie’s foundation is built. It is a role that requires an actor to achieve a presence while seldom being seen or heard and with no real dialogue that allows us to know the character.  That he creates a Willie that we care about shows us his talent.

Izmir Ickbal has created the barren landscape that is home to Winnie and Willie.  Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design moves us throughout the day.

It must be admitted that Happy Days would not lose its impact if it were shorter.  The first act is over an hour; there were some empty seats in act two.

But for serious theater goers, Happy Days is a play everyone should see at least once. New Haven audiences are lucky to have such a fine production and excellent performances available.

Happy Days is at the Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven through Saturday, May 21. For tickets visit yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and http://www.zip06.com

Jarlath Conroy and Dianne Wiest.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

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