Yale Repertory Theater’s production of Happy Days is both the epitome of existential comedy and tragedy pairing two genius talents – playwright Samuel Beckett and actress Dianne Wiest.
The play opens with Winnie (played by Ms. Wiest) buried to her waist in the earth in a vast and seemingly post-apocalyptic field of nothingness. Upon the blaring bell which alerts her to start her day, Winnie begins her daily routine with a prayer and then mines into her black tote bag filled with the last of her earthly possessions including a tooth brush, a bottle of medicine, comb, lipstick, nail file, hat, gun and a music box. With them she methodically begins getting herself ready for what the day may bring. Behind her hidden over the hill is her husband Willie (played very cool and matter-of-factly by Jurlath Conroy) who reads the newspaper and grunts tidbits as they pass the day together. Winnie is the eternal optimist exclaiming that this, indeed, is going to be “another happy day”. She does what she needs to do to get through the reality of her day with no complaints while trapped in this bleak existence – it is all she has.
This continues for the length of the play with Winnie telling antidotes and buzzing around her possessions while entrapped and wondering if anything is going to happen today. “Mustn’t complain; so much to be thankful for; no better, no worse; no change, no pain” are her words to live by.
In act two Winnie is now buried up to her neck in dirt, not able to move any part of her body and a bit more ravaged by her reality and the elements. Once again, she faces the day doing the only thing she can up to her neck in dirt and takes an inventory of her face trying to examine her nose and lips. She continues her story telling and Willie finally comes out of his hole dressed in a suit and top hat crawling to – but not able to fully reach her – and reminds her of the day he asked her to marry him followed by his final word to her “win” as she then begins to sing a love song along with her music box.
Ms. Wiest is arguably one of the great American actresses of our time. We do not get to see her work nearly as much as we would like (although a weekly dose of her on the CBS sitcom Life In Pieces is a delicious treat). Getting to see her in such a nuanced role is like watching a master class. The precision of her voice inflections and mannerisms are worthy of study.
Izmir Ickbal’s clean and simply designed stage of only dirt mounds against a blue sky projects the vastness yet keeps your focus on the Winnie which is a necessity.
Typical of Beckett, you are constantly reminded to ask yourself the question “what does this all mean?” while being drawn into the strange world and situation you are observing. Themes of strength of human (especially women’s) spirit and being content and grateful for what you have in life are abundant throughout the work but, of course, the beauty of it all is to decipher and see what it individually means to you.