When the audience first meets Winnie, a middle-aged, 1950s-era housewife in Samuel Beckett’s play "Happy Days," she is buried up to her waist in a huge ball of dried earth and bits debris, as if the mound accumulated the trash after rolling down a mountain of refuse. (Pitch-perfect scenic design by Lisa Schlenker.) Sun-drenched, solid and lifeless, the mud boulder has captured and imprisoned Winnie. She has no way out, no shelter from the elements and no choice but to make the best of it.
Explaining the plight of the play’s main character, playwright Beckett said, "Well I thought that (was) the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody ... And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing? Only a woman."
Long-time Milwaukee favorite Laura Gordon gives a stunning performance portraying this woman in Renaissance Theaterworks’s current production of "Happy Days," running through Feb. 16 in the Studio Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center.
Stripped of blocking and most movement, Gordon communicates volumes in the smallest gestures and captivates with the tiniest changes in her facial expressions. As the curiously resilient and adaptable Winnie, she is clad in a chic, black, off-the-shoulder cocktail dress, her golden hair carefully arranged, her fashionable hat pinned in place and her lips sufficiently rouged, so that if friends dropped by for bridge or invited her out to the country club, she could immediately accept. In fact, if it weren’t for her enormous earthen confinement, Winnie might sound like any other wife and homemaker, pronouncing that it’s going to be "a happy day."
That’s where the absurdity starts.
Of course Winnie does acknowledge some problems with her situation. For instance, she is almost out of toothpaste. This is because brushing her teeth first thing in the morning is part of an essential part of a well-traveled routine. Alas, she is also running out of lipstick – another part of her daily regimen, the activities that fill her days and provide some comfort, control and structure to her confinement.
Both of these items come out of Winnie’s large black handbag which, like Mary Poppins’s bottomless carpet bag, contains a wide array of essentials, each one seemingly as new to Winnie as it is to us. The moment she finds a wooden music box and puts it to her ear to hear its lovely, tinny tune is as surprising as the handgun she examines briefly, then puts in its place in her array of objects.
Perhaps Willie can go to the store for her to buy more cosmetics. But maybe he won’t have to. In her seemingly unending torture, Winnie tells us that even though she throws her silver hand mirror away and her delicate lace parasol bursts into flames, they will be back tomorrow. And mysteriously, they are.
Willie (Todd Denning) is Winnie’s damaged and equally hobbled husband. Although he’s not tethered to the earth, he is significantly diminished by the current circumstances. Unable to walk, he crawls clumsily on all fours. Unable to hold a conversation, he responds to Winnie in grunts and growls, unless he is reading the want ads in the newspaper, particularly one searching for a "bright young boy," which obviously doesn’t apply to this couple any longer.
While Winnie is carefully coiffed, Willie is dirty and crude, unable to care for himself without her guidance. He is a perfect foil to his wife, who through sheer force of will has decided to maintain her routines, her decorum and her purpose in the face of unimaginable horror. Like the dysfunctional, codependent relationships between many Beckett characters, Willie needs Winnie to remind him how to behave as a human. Winnie needs Willie to reassure herself that she is not talking to a void, that there is someone listening to her irrationally normal conversations.
This is where the absurdity deepens.
"Happy Days" is often referred to as an actress’s "Hamlet" because the play’s success rests squarely on Winnie’s shoulders, and since she has the vast majority of the lines, it’s a feat of memorization. Also, although this piece is one of Beckett’s most cheerful and conventional plays, the words on the page are still a puzzle.
Like the tale of the troubled Dane, they contain many non-sequiturs and disconnected thoughts. Giving the often bizarre lines meaning and purpose – making sense of them, if only internally – is a huge task for both the actor and director. In this case, Gordon and Marie Kohler interpret the script thoughtfully, sometimes playfully, like expert codebreakers giving intention to the words, if not complete clarity for the audience.
There’s another similarity between lead roles in these canonical classics: the challenge for both the performer and the audience to sense the moment when character is driven mad by her predicament. Or is she? Or is she fading in and out of sanity? Like the rest of the play, there are no easy answers.
Josh Schmidt’s powerful, primal sound design introduces each act with a feeling of mounting doom. Perhaps it’s the sound of a growing explosion. Or an avalanche picking up speed as it leaves a larger swath of destruction in its wake. Or a tornado coming closer, bearing down on the audience members, hiding in the dark. The juxtaposition with Winnie’s relentless pronouncements that this will be "a happy day" is stark, particularly when the whirlwind of destruction opens on a scene where the indomitable heroine’s circumstances have grown even worse. She is buried up to her neck by the paralyzing earth.
Reduced to a talking head on top of a hill, now her toothpaste is out of reach. Like her bag. And the lipstick. And the music box. And the gun, which initially threatened violence but also offered the possibility of relief from her hellish existence. Now there are only moments of sleep interrupted immediately with a shrill school bell.
In the final stage picture, there is a heartbreaking ambiguity about what Willie is reaching for, as he uses all his remaining energy, attempting to climb up the mound that has swallowed his wife. Perhaps it’s Winnie. Perhaps it’s something else. His failure is both inevitable and devastating either way.
And now the absurdity is crushing.
"Happy Days" isn’t an easy play to fit into a theater season – but great kudos go to Renaissance Theatreworks, the astounding Laura Gordon and the inspired Marie Kohler for taking the risk and making the experience unforgettable.