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Happy Days
Fusion Theatre Company

Happy Days
Laurie Thomas
Laurie Thomas certainly does not shrink from an acting challenge. Barely one month has passed since Albuquerque theatre audiences thrilled to Thomas's performance in the titanic role of Violet Weston in Fusion Theatre's triumphant production of August: Osage County. Now, Thomas returns to the stage of The Cell to tackle one of the most exacting female roles written in the last century, that of Winnie—the woman embedded up to her waist in a mound of scorched earth—at the center of Samuel Beckett's play, Happy Days.

Happy Days is, for the most part, an idiosyncratic monologue in which Winnie ( a "well-preserved" woman,"blonde for preference ... arms and shoulders bare") speaks almost constantly about the mundane details of this particular day. As she ruminates about whether or not this day will be a "happy day," Winnie also enacts the many meticulously scripted bits of business that Beckett provides to score the pacing and action of the scene. We never quite learn who Winnie is, where she is, nor why she came to be embedded waist-deep in scorched earth. (Indeed, one of the most marvelous aspects of any play by Samuel Beckett is that—by so assiduously avoiding specificity, by being about nothing in particular—his plays somehow become about everything all at once. Beckett's language modulates Winnie so that she's in a state of constant suspension; nothing ever quite settles long enough to actually make sense, yet the language's bobbing journey captivates our imaginations and emotions.) Winnie does not address us, the audience, but focuses her scattershot attention upon her mostly silent companion Willie (John Hardman), who spends most of his time just out of our, and Winnie's, clear view.

Fusion Theatre founding member Jacqueline Reid directs the production with clarity and precision. Because the Beckett estate exerts a notoriously stringent authorial control regarding interpretive gestures in production, directors are prohibited from "resetting" a Beckett play in any way that departs from what is written in the script. Reid and her collaborators, however, develop a thoughtfully and thoroughly executed production concept, one that hews precisely to the script while also offering a distinctive approach to the visual architecture of the piece. The mound of scorched earth demanded by Beckett's script is imagined by designer Richard K. Hogle as a roundish series of oblong plateaus, each a touch smaller than the one beneath it, that rise to a central apex where Thomas's Winnie bursts forth incongruously, like a flower in the desert. Costume designer Aura Sperling outfits Winnie in the crisp lacy top of what appears to be an elegant wedding gown. (The effect is that of an elaborate cake, with Winnie an especially lively topper, not unlike one of those child's birthday cakes in which a Barbie-type doll sits atop the pile of sugary frosting designed to suggest the folds of a gown.) Behind Winnie, Mark Cleveland's series of shifting video projections convey broad vistas and open spaces, a clear evocation of the desert sky at is most beautiful and its most austere.

It is a clever production concept, to be sure, but it serves only one slice of the play. Indeed, one of the limits to Fusion Theatre's production of Happy Days arrives in its emphasis on certain themes within the script, seemingly at the expense of others. The eager audience with whom I saw this performance doted on those moments of the play that addressed the intimate humiliations of a long-term companionship, as well the quiet absurdities of middle age. In such moments, the production found the balance between crass humor and poignant despair that most animates Beckett onstage. Yet other passages—when Winnie dithers about her own acquisitiveness, or contemplates her life's curious landscape—seemed to glide in and out of emotional focus. When Hardman's Willie arrives on stage in a tuxedo complete with top hat, we can see that the production really has imagined Willie and Winnie as the bathetic figures atop a wedding cake, a specificity which unfortunately tamps the unpredictability of Winnie's emotional and verbal jags with an overweening specificity.

The role of Winnie is among the most exacting roles for an actress of a certain age, one that has been performed to legendary effect by such diverse performers as Billie Whitelaw, Irene Worth, Fiona Shaw. Edward Albee is said to have said that Beckett's language is neither absurd nor stylized but profound in its naturalistic evocation of the rhythms of daily speech. Here, with humor, style and a great depth of feeling, Laurie Thomas adeptly reminds us why she is one of Albuquerque's most well regarded performers. A member of the Performing Arts faculty at Albuquerque Academy, Thomas's extensive preparation for the role took her to the Beckett archives at the University of Reading where she studied the playwright's original drafts of the play. Thomas's evident insight and preparation informs the delightful humanity she brings to the role, and it is a pleasure to listen to her maneuver the challenges of the script in this production that upholds Fusion Theatre's admirable professional standard.

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett, presented by Fusion Theatre Company and directed by Jacqueline Reid, runs through November 14, 2010, at The Cell, 700 1st St. NW, in Albuquerque's Downtown district. Show times Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 6 pm, with additional Saturday matinee performances at 2pm. $30 general admission; $25 for seniors and students (with ID). For reservations, call 505-766-9412 or visit www.fusionabq.org.


Photo: Richard H. Kogle

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