Samuel Beckett's best-known heroine shows us how to go on living when we've had it up to our necks with life.
"Another heavenly day," says the eternal optimist Winnie, a woman in an absurdly horrible situation in Samuel Beckett's minor masterpiece Happy Days. The female counterpart of Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Winnie fills her days with mundane chores and an occasional word from her husband, Willie, to pass the time until she happens upon a moment of joy.
A wonderful new production of this quintessentially absurdist tragicomedy is now running at the Flea Theater under the intelligent direction of Andrei Belgrader, who helmed BAM's 2008 production of Beckett's Endgame, starring John Turturro and Elaine Stritch. Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub play Winnie and Willie, one of the modern theater's most lovable couples, with an aching sensitivity to Beckett's richly symbolic language and to the soundless cry for meaning that echoes in his silences.
Waiting for Godot has been called a play in which nothing happens — twice. The same might be said for Happy Days — only more so. We first meet Winnie (Adams) as she sleeps with her body half buried in a huge mound of earth in an arid wasteland under the blazing heat of the sun. An invisible alarm clock suddenly goes off, and Winnie begins her day by brushing her teeth and examining the contents of her shopping bag, which contains, among other things, a revolver.
Her husband, Willie (Shalhoub), burrows in a hole somewhere behind Winnie and emerges now and then to read the newspaper and receive some gentle henpecking from his anxious wife, who is overjoyed when he speaks even a single word to her. But in the second act, we find Winnie buried up to her neck with no ability to manipulate the objects of her life, including that gun, if she ever had a mind to use it. Only the sight of her husband and the memory of an old song have the power to give her the joy — and hope — she needs to go on.
Adams is impeccably cast as Winnie, whose facial expressions convey Winnie's despair and joy nearly in the same instant, her bright smile easily breaking through the Beckettian gloom, then fading the next moment into troubled self-doubt. The old-couple chemistry that she and Shalhoub create onstage is likely to strike a chord of familiarity with those in the audience who have been together for many years.
Shalhoub doesn't get as much stage time as Adams (the play is essentially Winnie's 100-minute monologue with occasional interjections from Willie), but his pitch-perfect portrayal and spot-on timing ramp up the play's comical moments. Willie's precarious climb up the sloping mound of earth toward Winnie in the final scene is at once hysterical and poignant.
True to Beckett's text, Belgrader lets Winnie's sometimes lengthy pauses play themselves out rather than rushing them along. Life is more silence than action, Beckett seems to say. Adams skillfully fills the quiet with profound pathos while held motionless in the confines of Takeshi Kata's set, a sand-colored hill of time that gradually swallows Winnie. Yet in the background there's a bright blue sky that feels like hope.