'Happy Days': Theater Review

Happy Days Production Still - H 2014
Ed Krieger

Happy Days Production Still - H 2014

This impeccable rendition of Beckett’s bleak evergreen harmonizes the Irish playwright's craggy temperament with a peculiarly Southern California optimism

Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub star in a fresh and vital American interpretation of the Samuel Beckett classic

In perhaps the most singular, iconic image of all mid-century Theater of the Absurd, Winnie in Happy Days awakens buried "up to her titties" in a mound of sandy dirt. By Act II, she has sunk deeper into the earth, up to her chin. Yet Winnie faces each morning with a nearly indomitable optimism that somewhere in her circumscribed existence she will find enough quotidian detail or recollected reverie to will herself to another "happy day." 

Completed in 1961, the play was the last of the four immortal full-length theatrical works produced by Samuel Beckett before he retreated into more lapidary brief pieces for the balance of his creative life. After a half-century, some of its present-tense references have grown dated, its classical allusions ever more arcane, and its themes less thorny and innovative, if only because they have become so deeply internalized in our common consciousness. This is no longer a difficult play, despite its abiding mysteries. Even so, its profundity remains undiminished, and its impact still seizes the soul. This alert and conscientious production freshens the material by interpreting it with nuances and tones accessible to a contemporary audience.

Despite the severe limitations of her straitened circumstances, there are as many Winnies as actors to play her. Just as with a composition of classical music, one is often prone to remain fondest of the performance first encountered, and Ruth White, who originated the role, remains a touchstone, her dottiness masking an inner toughness. By accounts, Beckett’s favorite in the part, Billie Whitelaw, even elicited a lusty flirtatiousness. Irene Worth, whose interpretation was filmed for television, mixed flustered poise with a core of empty stillness.

Brooke Adams achieves her own originality of conception with a vocabulary of simple, deliberate gestures, meticulously delineated. Her sunny disposition is conceived in mannerisms recognizable to anyone in the audience, effectively suggesting that Winnies are all about us — and within us, too.

Adams performs efficiently and economically yet is utterly in touch with the demands of the play’s bleak vision. This is an all-American Winnie, and Takeshi Kata's set design, however inflexibly dictated by the text, allusively suggests a sense less of an Anglo-Irish seashore than a desert not so far off a freeway.

When Winnie removes cherished objects from her bottomless tote bag in Act I (while she can still reach into it), a toothbrush or lipstick or pistol transforms into a meaningful totem of purpose. Prattling on to her mostly unseen husband, Willie (Tony Shalhoub, Adams’ real-life spouse), Winnie’s determination to eke out the bright side from transparently terminal desperation embodies both a valiant response to despair and an utter denial of reality.

Among the vast catalogue of showboat roles, these two may be the most self-effacing. Shalhoub has been nominated for three Tonys and won three Emmys for Monk, yet here he barely appears or speaks. Nevertheless, he provides a valuable foil, essential to the play’s mechanism, and proves craftily capable of stealing scenes with only the back of his head facing the audience. Aside from muttering and reading the want ads from a yellowed newspaper, his sole extended line is: “A hog is a castrated swine, primarily raised for slaughter.”

Like any durable masterpiece, Happy Days can feel different over time as the viewer’s perspective on mortality morphs, and everyone owes themselves a renewed encounter with it every twenty years or so. The pride of this production, so attentively directed by Andrei Belgrader, resides in the way it revivifies the play’s everlasting relevance. 

Cast: Brooke Adams, Tony Shalhoub

Director: Andrei Belgrader

Playwright: Samuel Beckett

Set designer: Takeshi Kata

Lighting designer: Tom Ontiveros

Costume designer: Melanie Watnick

Sound designer: Robert Oriol

Presented by The Theatre @ Boston Court