Lights up on a beach where Winnie, an elderly (though doggedly spritely) woman is buried up to her waist in….a very big hill? Dune? Mound? It’s tiered (like a lopsided wedding cake?) and enormous. She whispers her morning prayers, brushes her teeth, studiously, checks her hair, makeup, and so forth….She launches into what amounts to a prolonged soliloquy of her life experience, repeating certain phrases: His great mercies…the old style. We come to learn that she is not only talking to herself, but Willie, who slowly drags himself from hibernation, summoning something between a snarl and a yawn, till he is finally able to begin his ritual of reading from the newspaper. In the first act he wears striped pants and a wife-beater somewhat reminiscent of beachwear (or a prison outfit) in the next he emerges (much to our surprise-sorry) in top hat and tails. Winnie addresses him in excruciatingly deferential terms, nearly apologizing for anything she asks of him. By the opening of Act II she is up to her neck in sand, and (understandably) more frantic than ever. Yikes.
Playwright Samuel Beckett was one of the absurdist, existentialist playwrights who came along around the same time as Edward Albee and Eugene Ionesco. Really, absurdism is a kind of reality, but it’s not what we routinely encounter. The interesting thing about absurdism is that only works if we take it at face value. It’s an obtuse sort of satire, but if we look at what appears on stage in purely symbolic terms, it doesn’t play. Happy Days is funny because we’re not likely to see someone in Winnie’s literal predicament. Then, subsequently the melancholy comes through in time, lyrical dialogue and reflection. In basic terms, existentialism states that we are defined by our actions and choices rather than an ideology we cleave to. That is to say : I’m not a waiter when I’m attending my biology class, I’m a student. Or. Molly is not a Roman Catholic in the same sense that a table is always a table. Belief does not equal identity.
Happy Days seems to be a reflective, somber, and yes, very amusing piece on the hollow nostalgia of personal romance and the folly of finding purpose and validation in the sole context of love. Though it’s never spelled out as such, Winnie and Willie appear to be a married couple in the midst of their twilight years. They barely communicate, if at all. Winnie permits herself the luxury of looking back fondly on the halcyon days of their ardor, a point on which they briefly connect, before it fades completely from her mind. She clings to her daily rituals, prays, maintains, recollects, attempts conversation, awakens and goes to sleep at the clanging of a phantom electric bell. Her life contains little meaning outside the behavior she imbues it with. There’s a nasty cynicism that Beckett buffers with Winnie’s quaintness and supposed ordeal. She really does seem stuck, yet she is only buried in sand, perhaps implying she has more control than she knows or cares to exercise? She seeks refuge in gratitude and optimism but clearly to Beckett and us, there’s something crucial missing.
Props to director Susan Sargeant for taking on this enigmatic, engaging, poetic work by Beckett, and Stephanie Dunnam (Winnie) and William Arthur Jenkins (Willie) and carrying it off with virtue, humor and panache. Sargeant has a gift for conveying the puzzling ideas behind our more gloriously oracular playwrights.
Wingspan Theatre Company presents Happy Days playing through Saturday, October 26, 2013. 521 E. Lawther Drive (at North Cliff Drive) Dallas, TX 75218 at White Rock Lake. 214-675-6573. www.wingspantheatre.com