How Does Winnie's Plight in Happy Days Reverberate in Sunny So Cal? Read On!

Leigh Kennicott Reviews - Theater
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In most of his plays and fragments, Beckett excavates the depth of human existence no matter what the world events.  In 1961, Europe was finally shaking off the deprivation and destruction of the Second World War, and began to emerge into the hedonistic Sixties, as a butterfly might cautiously struggle out of its chrysalis.  However, Beckett still focused the futility of existence that the war – and French philosophers– engendered. “What’s it all for?” he seemed to question.  In Happy Days, he found, maybe not THE answer, but AN answer.

Fifty-odd years later, Winnie (Dianne Wiest), the protagonist buried first up to her waist and then to her neck in desolate terrain, asks us to ponder the same question. Unable to extricate herself from her “mound,” her husband Willie quite freely sunning himself as he hovers nearby, Wiest reveals her relentlessly cheerful “can make do” spirit. She delights in speaking “in the old style, “ prays sincerely, and occupies herself with the contents of a bag she maintains nearby.  Her existence seems inexorably tied to Willie, (Michael Rudko), who rarely, if ever, acknowledges her. Like other of Beckett’s characters, she waits.

With this play, Beckett made sure that the terrain of the setting and the character’s actions were strictly prescribed.  There is not much wiggle room for wild variants of interpretation.  Yet Weist manages to elevate Winnie from the dowdiness of her running monologue to a sort of transcendent bonne volonte that begins to chip and crack gradually.  “Was I lovable once?” she asks Willie, who does not answer. As her façade gradually falters, we begin to understand her as a metaphor for our own lives.  With Beckett, and certainly with this production, we must take stock of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.

Since this is a production that originated at Yale Rep, the designers have adapted the Taper’s thrust stage to accommodate the gigantic sand pile that rises up to encase poor Winnie for the duration of the play.  Set against an almost cloudless blue sky, Winnie’s iconic black strapless and pill-box hat bespeaks the era in which it was written.

The only anachronistic detail must be the richly textured curtain encircling the stage, and upon raising it, loops into Victorian sconces.  The unnecessary footlights are relics of the same era.  This detail seems to come from the scholarly observation that Waiting for Godot demonstrates Beckett’s obsession with the music halls of his youth. Some critics have referred to Willie’s bowler hat in Act One as evidence. Others point to Winnie’s closing song, but, in fact, the song emanates from an operetta, “The Merry Widow.” In my view, not all of his work reflects the same levels of influence. His existential view of life remains constant, though.  In his own words, he defined Winnie’s life: "And I thought who would cope with [all] that and go down singing, only a woman."

“Winnie is a victim, a victim of the human condition; if her only defense against the intolerable is to behave as if it were all natural and very understandable, who is there to blame her?” – Richard N. Coe in Critical Survey of Drama, v. 1.

Happy Days continues Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 pm and Saturdays at 2:30 pm and 8 pm; and Sundays at 1:00 pm and 6:30 pm through June 30th, 2019.  The Mark Taper Forum is located in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012. Tickets range from $32.00 to $115.00.  To purchase, call 213.628.2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, or in person at Center Theatre Group box office.