Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 23, 2013

Theater in the ground

'Happy Days' heroine is stuck in more ways than one, but actor Courtney Walsh brings her to sharp, nuanced life

by Kevin Kirby

Have you ever felt stuck? Stuck in a dead-end job? Stuck in a moribund relationship? Stuck, yet again, in stop-and-go traffic on the same soul-crushingly dreary stretch of highway? Well, cheer up. Because your life — your particular rut, whatever it may be — is positively scintillating compared to the daily grind endured by Winnie, the heroine of Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days," currently in production at Stanford Summer Theater.

Winnie, you see, is literally stuck ... trapped up to her waist in a mound of earth, in the midst of a desolate wasteland, beneath a blazing sun. She has a flimsy parasol at her right hand and, at her left, a large black bag that holds her scant possessions — mirror, nail file, toothbrush, toothpaste, lipstick, magnifying glass — all severely worn or nearly depleted.

For company, she has only her husband, Willie, who lives in a narrow tunnel in the back of the mound. She can see him only by craning her neck, and only on those infrequent occasions when he emerges from his hole to read the newspaper. And though Winnie peppers him incessantly with questions, observations and advice, his responses are as rare (and generally as monosyllabic) as hens' teeth.

And yet, Winnie soldiers on. Woken each morning by an unseen bell, she mumbles a prayer, fixes a smile on her face and sets about the task of identifying her seemingly boundless blessings. Perhaps today Willie will speak to her. Perhaps her toothpaste will not yet have run out. "So many mercies," she says with each discovery. "Great mercies. Abounding mercies."

If you think you detect a metaphor here, of course you are correct. Trapped in the earth (or, for most of us, on it) with no explanation of our predicament, existentially alone despite our companions, consoling ourselves with whatever meaning we can construct in the face of an indifferent universe: This may be the clearest possible dramatic statement of the Absurdist philosophy that underlies all of Beckett's mature work. And yes, for all you philosophy majors who may be wondering, Winnie's bag also contains a silver pistol, silently posing the ultimate Camusian question.

Not everyone is going to like "Happy Days," despite the meticulous artistry evident in SST's production. But then, not everyone is an unreserved fan of the human condition.

Nor, in fairness, is everyone a fan of minimalist theater. Those who attend expecting a conventional plot with conventional staging may be frustrated by Winnie's static plight. But for those willing to accept Beckett on his own terms, there are ample riches to be discovered.

Foremost among these is the sharp, nuanced performance of Courtney Walsh as Winnie. Anchored ever center stage, delivering what is essentially an 85-minute monologue, Walsh is nonetheless riveting. Each movement, each inflection is carefully considered, and each momentary silence reveals something of Winnie's mind. (The fact that Walsh maintains a flawless Irish brogue throughout makes it that much more impressive.)

More importantly, Walsh seems to understand the humor of the play. Despite Winnie's dire straits — and despite opening weekend audiences' reluctance to laugh aloud at said straits — Beckett intended for "Happy Days" to be equal parts comedy and tragedy: comedy because a woman in an absurdly horrific situation strives beyond reason to convince herself that everything is all right, and tragedy... well... tragedy for exactly the same reason.

Walsh latches onto this duality and plays it for all it's worth. Even in the second act — when, after an unspecified passage of time, we find Winnie sunk up to her neck in the mound, unable now to reach the bag or the parasol or the pistol — Winnie's stubborn optimism is both her silliest human foible and her greatest survival mechanism. Only the clench of Walsh's jaw betrays her stifled desperation as she refreshes her smile and chides herself with a sing-song, nannyish "No, no!"

This "No, no!" is one of many phrases ("That is what I find so wonderful," " ... to speak in the old style," "Oh, this is a happy day!") that Winnie repeats countless times throughout the play, and another proof of Walsh's talent is her ability to color each of these phrases slightly differently with each repetition.

(In fact, audience members struggling to find a way into Beckett's theatrical world might want to focus on these textual repetitions and tonal shifts. What the script lacks in traditional narrative conventions, it makes up for with a subtle musicality. Approached not as a play but as a minimalist chamber piece, "Happy Days" reveals Beckett the composer at work: establishing motifs, breaking them apart, recombining them in jarring counterpoint, changing the meter, building the monotony of Winnie's day into a complex theme-and-variations worthy of Philip Glass or John Adams.)

Don DeMico provides a nice contrast to Winnie's obstinate cheeriness as the mole-like Willie, surely one of the most thankless second-banana parts in all of modern drama. Despite the fact that we see only the back of his head (and precious little of that) until the play's final minutes, DeMico's deliberate movements and peppery vocal outbursts — especially Willie's barking laugh which narrowly avoids lapsing into a cough — create as solid a character as one could ask for.

Director Rush Rehm and his technical crew have done a fine job capturing the look and feel of Winnie's world, just as Beckett described it. There is a post-apocalyptic air to the setting (or perhaps, for modern audiences, a post-global-warming vibe), and the intensity of the light is such that, if one does not occasionally look away, Winnie's figure begins to swim in the bright atmosphere. Sound and lighting cues have the same sharp timing as the actors' lines. The sole technical disappointment comes when Beckett asks for Winnie's parasol to catch fire. Bowing, no doubt, to modern fire codes and audience sensitivities, SST makes do with a half-hearted wisp of faux smoke that, sadly, fails to carry the moment.

Whatever you may think of Beckett's theatrical style, this is a very strong production from Stanford Summer Theater. It is almost certainly not the sort of theatrical experience you're used to, but that's kind of the point. Get out of your rut. Spend an evening with SST's "Happy Days." What you make of it is up to you.

What:"Happy Days" by Samuel Beckett, presented by Stanford Summer Theater

Where:Nitery Theater, Old Union, Stanford University

When:Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through Aug. 25

Cost: Tickets are $25 general and $15 for seniors, students and youth.

Info: Go to stanford.edu/group/summertheater/cgi-bin/sst/ or call 650-725-5838.

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