Beckett's Winnie is a winner at Súgán
by Jeffrey Gantz
HAPPY DAYS, By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Derek Nelson. Set by Mick Spence. Lighting by
Marc Klureza. Sound by Ben Emerson. Costumes by Sarah D. Pruitt. With Carmel
O'Reilly and Robert Bonotto. Presented by the Súgán Theatre Company
at the Boston Center for the Arts' Black Box Theatre Friday through Sunday
through September 26.
If God could create the universe out of nothing, why shouldn't Samuel Beckett
create his sublimely unnerving plays out of next to nothing? Happy Days,
which was written and premiered in 1961, has just two characters: a 50ish woman
who's buried up to her waist in sand and a 60ish gentleman who scarcely speaks
and whom we hardly see till the end -- if one can speak of a Beckett drama as
having an end. Beckett himself, of course, plays the absent God, stranding his
Adam and Eve in such peculiar circumstances that they've scarcely any idea what
universe they're in. The current Súgán Theatre production, however,
is centered firmly in the Universe of Outstanding Dramatic Presentation. It's
everything small theater should be.
Winnie's predicament could be a metaphor for a number of conditions: the
helplessness of disability, or of old age; the isolation of the human
condition; the mystery of existence itself. Like all of us, she has no idea how
she came to be where she is. She only knows there's nothing she can do about
Her day begins when a bell (here a loud, grating fire-alarm buzzer) rings and
she opens her eyes and says, "Another heavenly day." Well, who's to say it
isn't? She has at her disposal a capacious black bag whose contents get her
through the time between "the bell for waking and the bell for sleep":
toothbrush and toothpaste, spectacles, hairbrush and comb, nail file, parasol
(to protect against "this hellish sun"), revolver (no mention as to whether
it's loaded), music box (it plays the waltz from The Merry Widow), and
God knows what else -- Winnie never plumbs (never dares plumb) the bottom ("The
depths in particular, who knows what treasures"), so it's her hope chest.
Even more important than the bag, though, is Willie, who's her assurance that
she's not alone. Willie "lives" behind her and to her right, sometimes lying
out in the sun and reading a newspaper, sometimes crawling into his hole (like
Endgame's Nagg and Nell in their trashcans). He doesn't answer Winnie's
questions often; when he does, she invariably beams and says, "Another happy
day." The happiness of Happy Days is human contact, no matter how
minimal. Act one ends as the bell for sleep appears imminent. Indeed, this
could be a one-act play, an endlessly repeating day, with Winnie none the wiser
at the conclusion than she was at the beginning.
But there is an act two, and it's a more sinister affair. It's not even half
as long as act one (days dwindling down?). The bell rings whenever Winnie
closes her eyes. And there's not much else she can do, because now (again
without explanation) she's buried up to her neck. The bag is still there, but
she can't open it. All she can do is keep talking, keep hoping that God is
listening, that Willie is listening, that someone is listening. There's an
alarming story about Mildred and her Dolly and a mouse that runs up Mildred's
leg; there's an equally alarming appearance by Willie, who suddenly presents
himself in morning coat and striped trousers -- to kiss or to kill? At least
he's there. Winnie sings her Merry Widow waltz ("It's true, it's
true/You love me so") song. They look at each other. Curtain.
On paper, Happy Days is Beckett trying to understand what it's all
about. In performance, there's a comforting audience that Winnie can't help but
address -- it's Beckett's suggestion that the theater is our challenge to God
to be our audience. You could play Winnie as our appointed Everywoman in search
of answers. Carmel O'Reilly, however, has decided that God is in the details.
Her Winnie is a not overbright Northern Irish housewife (she wears a wedding
ring -- does that mean she married Willie?) who affirms the singularity of
God's creation in every word, every gesture. She aims -- and hits -- not the
universal but the particular. In so doing, she valorizes any other
interpretation that affirms the singularity of God's creation.
Robert Bonotto makes an unsettling, persuasive Willie; the talented Mick
Spence has created a sand dune that's both visible to the audience and faithful
to Beckett's "low mound"; and the lighting is appropriately "hellish."
(Is Winnie in Hell? Why?) But it's O'Reilly who has the answers to
Beckett's questions. Scrunching up her otherwise handsome face, masticating his
words as only an Irishwoman can do (words are as frustrating -- and essential
-- to Beckett as they are to Henry James, or James Joyce), her Winnie stands
for all of us -- not by being all of us, but by being Winnie. Any time O'Reilly
opens her mouth, it's happy days.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.