Just over 41 years after its world premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Samuel Beckett's Happy Days has returned there in an enchanting and surprisingly upbeat production. This production finds the depths of Beckett's drama and the heights of his comedy in perhaps unusual but inexplicably natural ways.
The star of this production, directed by Joseph Chaikin, is Joyce Aaron, who makes her first appearance buried up to her waist - literally - in Riccardo Hernandez's set depicting a mound of earth rising against a clear sky. Winnie, a middle-aged married woman, however trapped by convention and tradition she may be, is an unceasing optimist; nothing can deter her from finding the happiness and joy in even the tiniest things. She wants to derive as much as possible from her husband Willie (Ron Faber), though this is frequently difficult as he spends his life crawling around behind the mound, most often out of sight.
But as Winnie finds the beauty in what is perhaps an overly antagonistic world, so does Aaron find the beauty in Winnie. Aaron's joy is palpable, provided every time she smiles, comes to a conclusion about the world, or wraps her mouth around some of the exquisite poetry Beckett has provided in Happy Days. Aaron is wonderful, a highly capable and expressive actress who wrings everything she can from her limited movement possibilities. The simple pleasure she finds opening a parasol, kissing a revolver, or exploring the contents of the enormous black bag that shares space on the mound with her is wonderful to experience - you're right there with her, feeling what she feels, though your others senses want to tell you that the world she's living in is not at all the way she sees it.
The production's biggest surprise occurs in the second act. With Winnie now buried up to her neck, the overwhelming bleakness of her situation cannot be denied, but Chaikin and Aaron find ways to carry the lightness over the intermission, finding comedy in the harsh, cruel realities that even Winnie cannot avoid as the play barrels forward. Even the production's ending seems part of the whole, a uniquely hopeful take on what is, at first glance, a dire situation.
Faber has much less to work with, and his characterization is built around Willie's guttural grunts, mutterings, and disconnected phrases. But he supports Aaron beautifully, and his struggle to connect with her in the second act is comic, tense, and even passionate. His performance is the perfect complement for Aaron's, and despite the one-of-a-kind nature of the couple's relationship, you really get the feeling that they have the relationship and the history that Beckett's script implies.
But that's hardly surprising given Chaikin's work in this production. He has brought out a great deal of love and hope, elements not necessarily obvious when Happy Days is read on the page. Still, his defiantly unconventional take on the show works, being true to the actors' performances, the character suggested by Beckett's words, and the words themselves.
While it is perhaps common for productions of Beckett, even today, to desperately want to excite or shock, Chaikin's Happy Days takes another route. It delivers instead an entertaining and enjoyable experience from beginning to end that, whether or not it's necessarily what Beckett may have had in mind, does him as proud now as the original production must have when it premiered in the same theatre over 41 years ago.
Samuel Beckett's Happy Days