Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Theatre @ Boston Court
Through Oct. 19
In the midst of a desolate landscape, a huge mound of parched earth rises, occupied only by a few rocks, scraggly clumps of dead grass, and a woman, Winnie (Brooke Adams), who’s buried up to her chest in the earth. She’s slumped forward in an attitude of unconsciousness or despair. A deafening alarm bell brings her slowly to wakefulness. She surveys her surroundings, smiles, and exclaims, “Another lovely day!”
Samuel Beckett’s play is a whacked-out, absurdist, existential allegory in which Winnie seems to be able to find a silver lining in every cloud, and can find delight even in such horrendous conditions. Or is she just clinging desperately to the illusion of happiness? Is the title Happy Days heavily ironic, or is it meant as a paean to the human spirit, which finds a way to go on, even in the direst circumstances? Perhaps only Beckett knew for sure, and he didn’t choose to explain.
As Winnie prepares for her day, she brushes her teeth, combs her hair, applies her lipstick, puts on her hat, and diverts herself with the contents of her large black bag: her toothbrush, her spectacles, a magnifying glass, a nail file, a highly flammable parasol which begins to smolder when she attempts to use it as a sunshade, and a large revolver which she calls Browning. She reviews her sketchy memories, and talks to her taciturn husband Willie (Tony Shalhoub, who is Adams’ real-life husband), who occupies a pit just below her. His resources seem even slighter than hers. He has a hat, the classified ads section of an old newspaper, which he reads endlessly, a handkerchief, and a jar of Vaseline. When Winnie manages to elicit a word from him, she greets it with joy. When she extracts a music box from her capacious bag, its tune inspires him to sing — an event that makes her day.
In Act 2, we discover that Winnie is now buried up to her neck. She fears that Willie has abandoned her, but she can’t be sure because she’s no longer able to turn her head and look into his burrow. Her eternal optimism is beginning to fray a bit, and at one point she’s reduced to screaming. But there’s no response from the universe, or from Willie.
Director Andrei Belgrader has suggested that the play is newly relevant to a generation burdened by climate change and environmental doom. But this seems a bit too topical for Beckett, who seems more concerned with eternal verities about the human condition. Nevertheless, Belgrader has assembled a clever production, leavened with comedy and even a bit of vaudeville shtick.
Any actress who tackles the role of Winnie faces the nearly impossible task of keeping us interested and involved for two longish acts while she’s almost totally immobilized. But Adams rises to the occasion handsomely, keeping the opening night audience in thrall, by exploiting the comedy of Winnie’s ever-shifting moods, her unflagging spirits, and her ability to survive in increasingly desperate circumstances.
Shalhoub, as Willie, makes the absolute most of a seemingly constricted role: He says little, and is mostly invisible in Act 1. We see the back of his bald head, fringed with wispy white hair, we see his eyes peering over the edge of his pit, and we even get a glimpse of his bare backside, but we never see his face till almost the end of the play, when he emerges from his burrow dressed unaccountably as a down-at-heel banker, in cutaway coat, striped trousers, spats, and a battered top hat. He clowns shamelessly and zestfully, takes pratfalls, and seems to be enjoying himself immensely.
Takeshi Kata designed the bleak but imposing set and Melanie Watnick supplies the curious costumes.
The Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (added perfs Wed., October 8, 8 p.m.); through October 19. (626) 683-6883, BostonCourt.org.