NOT JUST “ANOTHER HAPPY DAY”: HAPPY DAYS

NOT JUST “ANOTHER HAPPY DAY” “No worse - no better, no worse, no change - no pain” says Samuel Beckett’ss Winnie. As HAPPY DAYS opens she’s stuck in a mound of sand up to her waist under the blazing sun, only to be awakened when sleep does visit by a loud, clanging bell. Beckett thought that the only person that could endure conditions like this would be a woman. Thus Beckett created Winnie, and blessed we are to have Winnie played by a superb Dianne Wiest in the Yale Rep’s production at Theatre for a New Audience. It’s the second time I’ve seen this production, having seen it in New Haven a year ago. It grabbed me then and wouldn’t let me go, and that’s happened again.

To say HAPPY DAYS is an existential contemplation of life and death is Drama 101, and to see Winnie as Everyman is sophomoric, but, in fact, there are too few visits to the theater that reduce the everyday so truthfully in the head, and so emotionally in the gut, too. When Winnie's material world is no more than a few pitiful possessions in her handbag – a worn-down lipstick, a cracked make-up mirror, toothbrush - are they much different from morning oj, car keys, the favorite sweater of our own daily routines? When Winnie loses her protection from the outside world - her parasol goes up in flames - how is that different from, say, to really dumb it down, losing one’s Iphone? Life goes on.

Beckett plays tricks with memory. Winnie recalls with coquettish delight her sexual life with husband Willie, now out of reach, just over a mound of sand. She tries to recall her first love, sitting on the lap of her father’s friend, how swell everything was “in the old style”. How often do we ask was it better then? Did that really happen that way?

So, can Winnie choose to change her lot? No. Can Winnie change at all? She says, “To have been always what I am - and so changed from what I was." Indeed. Do we have any choice? Inevitability obviates the why.

In Act 2 Winnie is up to her neck in sand, deprived of using her tawdry treasures, with no motility – accept her face, head and eyes (and, oh, what Wiest does here). With hope - that Willie might just recognize her, just try to communicate - Winnie survives. Winnie, wakes and sleeps, sleeps and wakes, and tells stories with the only real facility of the senses of the moment of now. Winnie endures “another happy day” until that one, final happy day.

Wiest reportedly began preparing for the role over a year before its Yale run. Beckett’s stage directions are minutely precise. Winnie’s simple acts - putting on her lipstick, ordering her possessions in the sand - are synchronized exactly with text. Wiest masters these technical aspects, along with astonishing vocal virtuosity. The face and voice Wiest gives Winnie reveal a lifetime full of contradictions - fear and humor, love and loss, disappointment and hope. Wiest draws you in closer and closer, to her face, to her eyes, in a totally captivating, mesmerizing performance.

Kudos all around – to Jarlath Conroy as Willie, director James Bundy, lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, scenic designer Izmir Ickbal, and sound designer Kate Marvin. If I never see another production of HAPPY DAYS, I’m blessed with this.

Kudos all around – to Jarlath Conroy as Willie, director James Bundy, lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, scenic designer Izmir Ickbal, and sound designer Kate Marvin. If I never see another production of HAPPY DAYS, I’m blessed with this.

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