By now, everyone knows what to expect when seeing a Samuel Beckett play – a huge helping of the unexpected. HAPPY DAYS is no exception. First produced in New York in 1961 and later in London in 1962, HAPPY DAYS fulfilled Beckett’s remarks: “…and I thought who would cope with that (being buried in sand) and go down singing, only a woman.” Lots of slyly clever metaphors and hints surrounding the fundamental absurdity of the tale abound, from comparing Winnie to a prattling bird and husband Willie to a turtle (or maybe a hog), to delving into the meanings for German words like “schauen” and “gucken,” to dredging up some forgotten Freudian symbols – all suggest that the audience remain on alert for the tasty tidbits which Beckett tosses about like bread crumbs to pigeons. The story of a henpecked hubby and his domineering and never silent wife has never been conceived of quite like this. Beckett’s unique and sad/funny perspective makes marital struggles seem fresh and new.
Poor Winnie (Diane Wiest) is really stuck in her unfulfilling life, a barren pile of sand which just barely allows her to function day-to-day. Yet Winnie manages to eke out the tiny joyous moments like hidden treasures – from saying her daily prayers – to brushing her teeth – to rooting around in her big black bag -to nagging her ever-silent spouse with questions which she happily answers. The eternal optimist, Winnie refuses to acknowledge the essential emptiness of her marriage, from basic communication to emotional – and sexual – intimacy. All the while ever-present Willie (Michael Rudko) is rarely seen – and never heard – as he skulks around and occasionally reads his newspaper. HAPPY DAYS is anything but, and yet Winnie seizes on any un-sad moments to make the sun shine just a little bit brighter.
Under the skilled hand of director James Bundy – an old hand at helming HAPPY DAYS from his earlier 2016 stint directing Diane Wiest at the Yale Repertory Theatre – this Los Angeles 2019 resurrection of HAPPY DAYS is filled with humor and warmth. Wiest does a brilliant job of portraying Winnie in all her innocent blindness and repressed longing. This is an actor’s dream role, and Wiest takes full advantage of the part.
Izmir Ickbal’s scenic design is simple, yet perfect for a woman who is forever submerged in her own perceptions and fantasies. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting and Kate Marvin’s sound complete the picture of a static existence with only words to add depth. Overall, HAPPY DAYS is an excellent rendering of Beckett’s underlying message – with lots of laughs thrown in along the way. HAPPY DAYS will charm every current Beckett fan and will seduce newcomers into Beckett’s strange and typically ridiculous world.
HAPPY DAYS runs through June 30, 2019, with performances at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Tickets range from $32 to $115. For information and reservations, call 213-972-7231 or go online.