Samuel Beckett's Brilliant and Bleak
Also see Bob's review of Meet Me in St. Louis
Winnie is imprisoned under the hot sun, buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. She begins her day when she hears "the bell for waking" and cannot end it until "the bell for sleep" sounds. Behind a pile of earth to her right, largely out of our view and facing the back of the stage is her husband, Willie. Willie is failing rapidly. His skin is raw from the sun, and when he returns a sheltering handkerchief to the top of his head, it is drenched in blood. Winnie repeated tries to get Willie to speak to her. She only occasionally succeeds in coaxing a few words from him. They are likely as not to be read from a classified ad in the newspaper which he is reading. It is clearly the final, loveless phase of a long marriage. Winnie, who chatters endlessly, has a pocketbook from which she withdraws a comb, a hairbrush and other personal grooming items with which she keeps up her appearance. She also withdraws a music box which plays "The Merry Widow Waltz," a parasol to protect herself from the sun (which is rendered useless as it flares into flame) and an ominous revolver. She reminds Willie that he had asked her to take it away to prevent him from taking himself out of his misery. Winnie tries to keep her spirits up by interpreting any happening (i.e., not feeling pain) as a sign that she is experiencing a heavenly, happy day. However, she is filled with anxiety and fear, and it becomes increasingly difficult for her to sustain optimism. Her greatest fear is of losing Willie:
If only I were happy to prattle away with none to hear, That you hear, although you rarely respond, let's me go on ... You're going to speak to me today. It's another happy day.
At the beginning of the shorter second act, we find Winnie now disheveled and older looking, buried up to her neck in the mound of earth. Willie is no longer in sight or responding to Winnie. He apparently has died. Winnie grows increasingly frantic and desperate. When there is a sound, it helps get her through the day. Her greatest fear now is that she is losing her mind. She remembers her childhood. The bells for waking and sleeping sound with ever more rapidity. Winnie awaits "the eternal dark." Willie reappears, crawling toward her, dressed in the tuxedo that he wore for their wedding. Is he reaching for Winnie or for the revolver which lies near her?
Thom Molyneaux has directed, seemingly following Beckett's directorial details as required by the Beckett estate (including the set design of Greg Cilmi). The direction is supple and clean, and the performances elicited are excellent. Mona Hennessey's Winnie has a musical Irish accent, and her words flow with natural ease. When Winnie's fears spiral out of control, we feel her anxiety in our bones. Unlike a naturalistic play where ideally we would go from a very specific individual situation and find the universality of it, in the theatre of the absurd, we have metaphorical characters and situations which reflect universal conditions. Mona Hennessey (and likely all great Winnies) makes the metaphor into a recognizable human. T.C. Tanis lends solid support as Willie.
The 1961 Happy Days is a jewel of the golden era of the Theatre of the Absurd. Mona Hennessy is giving an outstanding performance. Unlike some of the avant-garde theatre of that era, Happy Days remains fresh and relevant, even cutting edge. It is also minimalist and unremittingly despairing.
Happy Days continues performances (Thurs. – Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 3 p.m.) through November 18, 2007 at the Garage Theatre Group Becton Theatre on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University, 960 River Road, Teaneck, NJ. Box Office: P.O. Box 252, Tenafly, NJ 07670; 201-569-7710. online: www.GarageTheatre.org.
Happy Days by Samuel Beckett; directed by Thom Molyneaux