Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In the first act of Happy Days, Winnie, a woman roughly in her fifties, sits center stage buried up to her chest in a mound of dirt, set in an arid landscape. An alarm rings, waking her to the day, which she starts with a prayer and then spends grooming herself with items from a large hand bag within reach while prattling on to her husband, Willie, who is behind the mound, out of view at first. Based on Winnie's comments, Willie appears able to move only by crawling, and his hygiene is abysmal. Eventually, he rises enough for us to see the back of his head and his bare shoulders, reading headlines from a newspaper to Winnie and handing her a parasol to guard against the brutal sun.
Winnie is intent on making every day a happy one, no matter how limited her options, how lonely, how she notices her meager comforts running out as her toothpaste and lipstick are near empty. She frequently reminds herself of what she finds wonderful in her life. Among the objects in her bag is a handgun, which she sets aside, deciding it is not among those items intended for daily use. Whenever she mentions a day a day to come or a day gone she describes it as "the old style." Her current existence seems to be one unending, unchanging day. The one thing that reassures her of meaning is being able to frame her thoughts and speak aloud, knowing that Willie hears her. On the rare occasions he responds she is jubilant.
In the brief second act, Winnie is still stuck, only this time the mound rises up to her neck, enclosing her arms. Her hair has become matted and gray, her face smudged. Unable to turn her head to see Willie behind her, she carries on in faith that he is still there, even in the absence of any response. Maintaining the notion of a day being happy is increasingly a challenge for her. To the end she maintains the struggle, with a closing that leaves us uncertain whether it is hope or despair that awaits her.
Winnie has long been a plum role for actresses of a certain age, a near monologue that must reveal the contradictions between her revealed and submerged feelings. Amy Warner is a Winnie whose chipper demeanor is a transparent mask over the dread just below her skin. She projects a no-tears approach to her helplessness, able to rationalize every loss. She also projects a sexual nature, hanging on to that aspect of her existence through memory. Yet we repeatedly see her face about to crumble in defeat, only to watch her pull frantically back into a semblance of happiness. At the same time, she brings out the hefty servings of humor in Beckett's text. Ms. Warner has been long absent from the Twin Cities, having plied her craft as an actor in New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati. She makes a most impressive return to her home town. Michael Sommers does what is he is called on to do as Willie, a role that exists primarily as an appendage of Winnie's battle of endurance.
Michael Evan Haney's direction maintains a sense of movement and energy even though there is scarcely any movement at all. The moments of inaction and of silence, brief as they are between Winnie's compulsive chatter, hold our attention as much as do the words and action. In act one, the visible part of Winnie's torso is bedecked in a gaily flowered garden dress, low cut to reveal cleavage just enough to be provocative, yet not so much as to be vulgar. She has not given up the joy of feeling alive, nor abandoned propriety. Michael Sommers has designed the set, the mound of dirt visibly parched and dusty. Sean Healey's sound design and Bill Healey's light design add extra degrees of harshness to the setting.
Happy Days was first performed in 1961. In those days, with the heat of Cold War fears etched on the public, one can easily imagine Winnie's predicament interpreted as the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. We have no shortage of apocalyptic worries today. Beckett's work is usually categorized as Theater of the Absurd, and indeed the scenes we see enacted on stage in Happy Days are full of absurdities. Winnie's life-imprisonment in the mound of dirt is absurd, but one can argue that the tenacity with which she clings to it is equally absurd. The play remains a trigger for inner exploration, a Rorschach test for what makes us hold on so dearly to life. Open Eyes' production unleashes the play's hearty laughter, raises its profound questions, and provides a showcase for Amy Warner, an actress we hope to be seeing often on our stages. Well done!
Happy Days continues at Open Eye Figure Theatre through March 19, 2016. 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $20.00 general admission, $15.00 for seniors (65+) and students. For tickets and information go to openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6338.
Writer: Samuel Beckett; Director: Michael Evan Haney; Set Design: Michael Sommers; Light Design: Bill Healey; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Costume Design: Susan Haas and Amy Warner; Set Design Assistant: Annie Henley; Pyrotechnics: Brent Anderson; Stage Manager: Brandon Sisneroz
Cast: Michael Sommers (Willie), Amy Warner (Winnie)