Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
Does life have a meaning? Or do we dwell in a vast empty darkness? Are our days interminable, pointless? Do we fill our time with trivia? Such are the questions posed by Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” currently staged at the Westport Country Playhouse.
But Beckett’s ground-breaking piece offers a good deal more than metaphysical speculation, as Mark Lamos pointed out in his introduction on opening night. Lamos, the Playhouse’s Artistic Director who also directed the play, invited the audience to make of it what they chose.
Lamos need hardly have pointed this out, since Beckett himself, over the decades, has invited theatergoers to do just that, by virtue of the play itself. “Happy Days” (which had its world premiere at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 1951) is a kind of tabula rosa, a blank slate which one may interpret at will. It can be seen as a devastating—or hilarious-portrayal of marriage, a harrowing take on old age, an existential despair.
Dana Ivey holds forth in one long monologue, brilliantly executed and rarely interrupted. Those few interruptions are offered from Jack Wetherall who plays her husband Willie. Wetherall, mostly silent and invisible, serves as listener and target.
Ivey, as an aging Winnie, sits atop a high pile of rocks. Though Beckett avoids details, one can assume the couple is at the beach. Though JohnArnone’s set design is spectacular, particularly when the curtain rises, it does not serve the play to best advantage. Past productions have used a pile of sand which buries Winnie to her chest (and later to her neck). In this Westport set, one cannot tell if the character is meant to buried—or ensconced behind—the rocks, thus destroying Beckett’s very point that Winnie is being stifled by her circumstances.
Nontheless Winnie/Ivey rattles on, primping herself, busily searching for items in her bag to complete her toilette. The bag is crucial to her daily existence (as indeed it is for many women). She is attired in her best outfit, topped by pearls and a dressy hat. Winnie is clearly determined to prove all is well, though her semi-burial proves otherwise.
Though the monologue, at times, feels interminable, and might well have been condensed, Ivey is a joy to hear and behold. She creates a fierce, determined, and ultimately defeated character. And Wetherall proves to be a vulnerable target to her tirade.
In all, an important play for serious theatergoers.
-- Irene Backalenick
July 12, 2010