Reviewed by Judd Hollander
Denial becomes a powerful weapon of survival in the Yale Repertory Theatre's production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. The show running through May 28 at Theatre for a New Audience.
The play opens with a woman named Winnie (Diane Wiest) buried up to her waist on the side of a mountain, apparently unable to get free. Nor does she seem to want to do so. This evident in how she has clearly prepared for her situation. Beside her is a large handbag containing such objects as a hair brush, comb, toothbrush, and a gun. This last object clearly having a special meaning for her.
Winnie's only companion is her husband Willie (Jarlath Conroy). A somewhat older man also buried on the mountainside, though he is able to emerge from his own confinement whenever he desires. Winnie's attitude towards her husband giving the audience an idea of the couple's relationship. One that may have been quite loving at one time, but, at least for Winnie, has since turned sour. She seldom passing up a chance to get in a verbal dig at her spouse. From her chiding to take care he doesn't get sunburn, to lecturing Willie on the proper way for him to get in and out of his own resting place, Winnie is often unrelenting in her stream of condescending comments. The irony of course, is that because of her own condition Winnie is now quite dependant on Willie for anything that requires movement farther away than what her arms can reach.
Yet despite Winnie's circumstances, she seems to be quite secure. She continually saying aloud what a happy day it is. A day where nothing has gone wrong and where there are absolutely no problems present. Though one must wonder if she actually means this or rather is trying to convince herself it is true. There's also the question of why she is buried on the hill, and what she waiting for there. These issues taking on a more urgent air when the curtain opens on act two with Winnie now buried up to her neck.
Beckett is famous for not providing easy answers in his plays, as well as forcing his characters to make decisions on their own; rather than having circumstances make it for them. Both premises are clearly in evidence here. Has Winnie given up on life and simply waiting for the elements to overwhelm her, or is there something more at work? At one point Winnie asks "is everybody dead?", begging the question if Winnie is one of the last, if not the last, survivor of some global catastrophe. Or is her isolation actually a metaphor for a terrible loneliness she feels? A loneliness arising from being trapped in the suffocating sameness of a life not fully lived, and where she has finally reached a point where she simply said, "enough".
Another interesting ritual Winnie undertakes is her daily practice of praying. With the underlying question being just what she is praying for.
Wiest is at the top of her game as Winnie, bringing the character fully to life in a tour-de-force performance. Despite the challenges of performing in an increasingly constrained position, she projects more than enough power and presence to pull it all. Her tones changing from matter-of-fact to despair to resignation throughout, yet always delivered with a strong impact. Conroy does well as the often unseen Willie. His role mostly a sounding board for Winnie's remarks and actions, but always offering another piece to the scenario that's being presented. Including a significant sequence which, like all the others, offers far more than just one possibility.
Scenic designer Izmir Ickbal's set of the mountain is wonderfully done. The overall effect, thanks also to the work of lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge and sound designer Kate Marvin feeling totally realistic. James Bundy's direction strongly guides the story, allowing the work of the various creative participants to seamlessly blend together to show a situation where nothing may be what it seems.
Masterfully done, this production of Happy Days presents a powerful a view of a woman in the middle of a very personal journey. Though where she's going and where she's been is a matter left up to every member of the audience.
by Samuel Beckett
Featuring: Diane Wiest (Winnie), Jarlath Conroy (Willie)
Costume Designer: Alexae ViselLighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound Designer: Kate Marvin
Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson
Movement Coach: Jessica Wolf
Dramaturgs: Catherine Sheehy, Nahuel Telleria
Casting: Tara Rubin Casting/Laura Schutzel,
Production Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery
Assistant Stage Manager: Helen Muller
Press Representative: Blake Zidell & Associates
General Manager: Michael Page
Theatre for a New Audience
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.tfana.orgRunning Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission
May 28, 2017