By Patrick Hurley
No other dramatist has ever been able to take the emptiness of life and make it as fulfilling as Samuel Beckett did. His exploration of a meaningless universe where human beings are left longing to connect, but ultimately succumbing to dreaded silences is on perfect display in the beautifully staged Happy Days, playing through October 12, at The Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena.Winnie (Brooke Adams), a woman in her fifties, is buried up to her chest in a mound of dirt, with nothing but a black purse, an umbrella, and a husband named Willie (Tony Shalhoub), who lives in a hole over the hill just behind her. And though Willie does occasionally emerge from his hole, he usually has his back to Winnie, and she is left conversing with herself most of the time.
The play starts with a bell ringing, a bell that signifies it’s time to wake up, it’s a new day. Winnie greets the day with a smiling enthusiasm that is completely incongruous to her physical situation. Nevertheless, she is an optimist. She begins her day with a series of rituals that includes saying a prayer and brushing her teeth. She then tries to read what’s written on the toothbrush handle, but is only able to make out the first couple of words. She struggles over the meanings of words, and whether or not they really ever mattered at all. She questions if she’s brushed her hair, she marvels when she sees a small bug crawling on the ground before her, and she recites poetry and lines from other plays, all while trying to engage Willie in conversation.
Willie, meanwhile, emerges from his hole in the ground only to reveal the back of his head. He reads a newspaper, blows his nose into an old handkerchief for several minutes, and places the handkerchief on his head repeatedly. He responds to Winnie only when he’s irritated, and it is usually only one or two words and he’s back in his hole. Leaving Winnie to cope with her stasis alone. She has her big black purse to keep her company, and she occasionally pulls out an item and reminisces. At one point she pulls out a gun, and recalls how Willie used to tell her to keep it away from him because he would be too tempted to shoot himself. So, she leaves the gun on the ground where Willie can see it, perhaps as a way to taunt him into action. She is desperate for anything to change.
Winnie talks to herself as a means of keeping her wits about her. But she also understands that some kind of end is coming. She contemplates a time in the future, “when words must fail.” She also takes little actions, so as to combat the stagnate world she lives in. At one point she hoists the umbrella high above her head, and then claims that she is unable to put it down. She is unable to act. She is powerless. Thus negating her ability to actually do anything about her situation. When she throws the umbrella to the other side of the hill, she does so with the knowledge that it “will be back where it was tomorrow in perfect condition.” Nothing changes.
The static world of rituals is explored through Winnie’s daily routine. The monotony of everyday life. And while Winnie is unable to change anything in her current situation, change is ultimately inevitable. It is the comfort of her daily rituals that gives her some control over her uncontrollable situation. And it is her insistence on looking for things to be positive about, like when Willie hums along to the music box she pulls out of her bag that keeps her from losing what’s left of her mind and succumbing to madness. So when Willie hums, or speaks, or does anything different, she is relieved that this will indeed be another “happy day.” It’s a sobering statement on what we can endure. On the resiliency of the human spirit. Optimistic Winnie seeks the positive in things. She looks on the bright side of life, despite inching closer and closer to her own interment. And her optimism is occasionally deflated with deep mournful moments of grave silence.
Winnie’s physical limitations are symbolic of the grave. She is slowly being buried, but she is not dying. This burial represents the less and less significance she has in the world around her. She is becoming obsolete in a world that just keeps on going, one that will keep on going without her. It is a dark statement, but one that Beckett makes with his usual ingenious flair.
The beauty of Beckett’s work is in the exegesis of it. The pulling apart of the singular moments that make up a complete and profound statement on the nature of existence. A flaw that many Beckett productions make is that they pander to an audience. They try too hard to make his world an accessible one, rather than understanding the universality that is inherent in it. This production makes no such mistake. Director, Andrei Belgrader gets it just right. He allows the play to be stagnate, he allows the silences, and in doing so, he not only takes the risk of boring the audience—which does not happen—, but he also creates a perfect environment for his actors to shine.
As Willie, Tony Shalhoub has a fantastic physicality. At times, he moves with such oafish fatigue and painstaking resolve that it’s hard not to wince when watching him. He is not seen for most of the play, but when he is he knows how to embody the desperation and the sloth of Willie—a less than charming combination—and his comic timing is exquisite.
But this really is Brooke Adam’s play. As Winnie, she is outstanding. What a challenge for an actress to be mostly buried, with her face straight out to the audience, unable to fully move, and still completely captivate an audience. She holds us in the palm of her hand and we never deter from her. She imbues Winnie with a sweetness that is infectious, and a sorrow that is heartbreaking. We empathize so much with her because, in a sense, she is us. And Ms. Adam’s is able to convey that humanity, that everyday quality with such precision and tender sadness that you’ll want to jump out of your seat and free her from her gravelly prison.
Anyone familiar with Beckett or not can see Happy Days and take something away from it totally unique to that person. It is a work of art of the highest order, and this production rises to the challenges of such a work, and the result is magical.
By Samuel Beckett
The Theatre at Boston Court
September 13-October 12
Originally posted on http://www.lifeinla.com