Humanity labors with ferocious diligence at distracting itself from life; we’ll fashion any hell, commit our every breath to methodically counting sand grains on a beach, slavishly devote our lives to being “illuminated”, beholding the “Light”, being given a “sign”. Because as the poet Marcia Lee Anderson phrases it, “Stripped of subtle complications, who could regard the sun except with fear?”
Director Andrei Belgrader and set designer Takeshi Kata have placed Beckett’s dark and brooding “Happy Days” on a bare and desolate hill, behind which a blue sky extends to a horizon that’s bright with hope, yet all too obvious a stage decoration.
Two characters, one barely half on stage, the other not so much on stage as under it.
Winnie (Brooke Adams) begins the play buried to her waist, calling to mind the closing shot of Luis Buñuel’s 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou of two women on a beach buried up to their waists. Willie (Tony Shalhoub, Adams’ real life husband) rarely leaves the womb of his subterranean cave, responding to Winnie in monosyllabic grunts if at all. Winnie, on the other hand, pours out words in a manic attempt to block out the reality of her situation, and, in the process, exposes the rickety protection language offers against the incomprehensible suffering life inflicts on us. But words spew from Winnie as if too long a pause between statements would allow a scream to escape.
Death, as in most of Beckett’s work, is a creeping presence on stage. Half entombed as Winnie and Willie are, it could be thought they are rehearsing for death, and many have seen in Winnie’s ritual of filing her nails as a reference to the growth of finger nails after death. (Which is a falsehood, neither nails nor hair grow after death.)
Written in less than a year, “Happy Days” is both intriguing and frustrating, and while it lacks the muted gravitas of “Endgame” or the inspired clowning of “Godot”, one cannot help feeling that Beckett plunged deeper down the rabbit hole with this work than any other.
The Boston Court and director Belgrader have managed to mount a visually stunning staging of a play that peers into the bleakest abyss of the human soul. They have also imbued the play with an appreciable accessibility – no small feat for a work which is known for pushing some audiences right out of their seats and the theater. Beckett, in a revealing remark about a Berlin production, stated, “Strangeness was the necessary condition of the play.” Belgrader makes no effort to downshift on that “strangeness”, but has tempered it by instilling in Adams a childlike quality of wonder.
The play is essentially a one-woman show demanding an actress with a strong presence and major chops. Adams, best remembered for such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Days of Heaven may be lacking in both categories, but she keeps swinging away and in the end wins an audience’s respect by her sheer tenacity – a trait shared by most of Beckett’s characters.
Shalhoub makes the very most of what little he has to do on stage, and at first one would be tempted to judge his role as a thankless one. That is until you witness him at curtain call, when you see him standing off from his wife watching as she receives the audience’s applause with equal parts of love and pride in his eyes.
Now that really makes for happy days.