Beckett's Happy Days
at the Guthrie Theater

The stage directions of Samuel Beckett keep a tight grip on productions of his plays. Whereas the directions of a more conventional playwright may be safely ignored without obscuring the spirit of the script, the essence of a Beckett play is more fragile in the hands of an insubordinate company. In Happy Days, Winnie spends Act 1 buried to her waist in a mound, roused in the morning to the alarm of a bell--a condition she has endured for countless days. Her dull husband, Willie, lives in a hole on the backside of the mound, positioned so Winnie must strain to see him. Act 2 is played with Winnie buried to her neck, while Willie has evidently been dormant for a stretch of time. This set plays an integral role in the dialogue, in the sense that even Beckett's bare semblance of a plot might disintegrate if the stage were rearranged.

Burying his heroine can be imagined as an extraordinary measure of Samuel Beckett to keep productions under his control, preventing the actress playing Winnie from boldly making unscripted steps, while in the second act she is even forbidden simple hand gestures. This unnatural set maintains a presence for the playwright in any production, just as an abstract painting slaps us in the face with the artist's manifesto. Beckett likes to characterize space by restricting his character's movements. Whether the subject ties himself in a chair, lives in a garbage can, or waits indefinitely at a crossroad, Beckett defines a scene by exclusion as much as the spare parts he chooses to include. Especially in a confined space such as the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie, this use of restriction and space magnifies every expression and gesture on stage. And with Winnie immobilized, face-to-face with the auditorium, this magnification can reflect back on the audience as discomfort.

Happy Days is like a prolonged tete-a-tete with a remote acquaintance at a small, tippy table in a near-empty cafe. Always uncomfortable, these meetings can be relaxed with the skills of a sociable partner, or made more intense if you're lunching with Samuel Beckett. Here is one challenge for any actress playing Winnie: the character will only busy herself by sharing the superficial, but the actress must simultaneously reveal the depths of Winnie's misery.

At the Dowling Studio, directed by Rob Melrose, Sally Wingert is able to breeze through the mundane, playing with the contents of her purse and thrilling at the platitudes of timeworn chatter, yet drawing the audience into the occasional silence that whispers, "Who am I?" A natural comic actress, Wingert climbs mountains of Beckett's playful language, ascending through the comfort of Winnie's bare existence, and--once at the peak--invites us to gaze down at her life in the barren valley below.

For most of Happy Days, Willie is little more than a prop, a curiosity that occasionally excites Winnie. But the play ends with a frantic Willie struggling to climb the mound, at the top of which Winnie has casually placed a handgun on a rock. As Willie, Richard Ooms plays this conclusion convulsively, shaking and gasping, expending the balance of Willie's life force in a desperate bid to imprint himself on the plot. The curtain falls on this state of suspense, but with the certainty that Winnie's superficial world is bound to collapse.

Comic wit finds humor in established maxims and prejudice, sustaining itself on turns of phrase while playing to the expectations of its audience. Comic genius is able to create humor ex nihilo, transforming the mundane to the essential, elevating comedy to tragedy. In Happy Days, Samuel Beckett decisively breaks toward the latter. Three bells and a Black and Tan for Rob Melrose, Sally Wingert, and Richard Ooms, for breathing life into a production while confined within the master's specifications.

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