Happy Days: Picture-perfect production

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett at the Yale Repertory Theatre is such a picture-perfect production and so deeply moving that it must be considered a historic achievement. This is due to the tightly focused and insightful direction of Yale’s Artistic Director James Bundy and the clarity of performances delivered by Dianne Wiest and Jarlath Conroy. Finally, one can attend a Beckett performance and understand unequivocally what it means to be human.

Beckett’s working title for this  now-famous work was labeled:Female Solo. Wiest, who has starred on Broadway and in film and television and currently appears in the CBS series Life in Pieces, plays a character that defines “female solo.” She has presented her character “Winnie” with such clarity and depth, that you walk away knowing that this play has enough layers to keep you thinking for many a day. And it is a play of few words and little distraction. The production plays through May 21. Box office: 203-432-1234

When we first meet Winnie, she is buried in the earth up to her bosom. However, she goes through her daily rituals, saying a prayer, singing a song, and taking items out of her black satchel. At first she wears a pearl necklace, but she soon takes it off. It is just a trinket. Fully aware of the fact that the earth will eventually swallow her up, she realizes that so much that one acquires in life is trivial.

In the first act, she can move her arms about and take and place items in and out of her black bag. She talks and what she says is important because she is an optimist. She exemplifies an existentialist who knows the final outcome  of life, but is ever hopeful. “Can’t complain – no no – mustn’t complain – so much to be thankful for…” She repeats many of her words, but the important thing here is that she is always thinking. Even in  the second act, when the earth has now covered her up to her chin and she no longer can move. Her arms and legs are buried, but she is still appreciative of life, even the life of a tiny insect that moves into her line of vision. She knows her mind is still functioning. Talking becomes a necessity. Soon she won’t be talking. She makes note of the fact that she can still think and that is what Beckett believes ultimately makes us human.

There are other ways of looking at this play. She certainly has a lot to say about her sensual life. She is also seen as a woman who essentially has been buried alive in her marriage to Willie. We don’t see much of Willie until the second act, but Jarlath Conroy makes that character’s presence known and important. She asks him a question almost apologetically – as if she is putting him out. At one point she asks if she was ever lovable. He doesn’t give her an answer.

I remember in an acting class that students were asked to smile with their eyes and not with their lips, mouth or any other part of the body. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. However, Wiest can not only smile with her eyes, she can make her face translate volumes. And Conroy’s dramatic ending is just brilliant.

Izmir Ickbal’s blazing bright blue sky and sun-scorched dry earth are a perfect frame for this work, especially featuring Stephen Strawbrige’s lighting design and Kate Marvin’s sound design. Alexa Visel’s costume design, a black strapless top of what seems to be an evening gown and a little black hat emphasize Wiest’s pale features and light hair. The production plays through May 21.

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association.  She welcomes comments. Contact:jgrochman@gmail.com