Beckett blinded his characters. He struck them mute, rendered them impotent. He crippled them, starved them, widowed them, and burdened them with diseases. But he never abandoned his affection for them.
This affection amidst calamity is central to Happy Days, which consists almost entirely of middle-aged Winnie (Dianne Wiest) gleefully gabbing away despite being buried to her waist, and then later to her neck, in sand. Occasionally, her husband, Willie (Jarlath Conroy), will wriggle out of his hole to grunt, masturbate, read the newspaper, and offer monosyllabic answers to Winnie’s questions. Each gesture of connection from Willie fills Winnie with delight—indeed, her incessant speech is itself a way of maintaining contact with him—and, despite her circumstances, she is able to litter the play with sincere bursts of positivity.
It should come as no surprise that Winnie suits Ms. Wiest just fine. As an actor who has made her career out of gentle, squinty-eyed grandmotherly types, her demeanor is a natural fit. However, this performance is much more than sharp casting: Ms. Wiest brings dignity to the part. Sure, we laugh when Winnie asks Willie, “What is that unforgettable line?” or when she is thrilled to find that her toothbrush is made from hog’s setae: “That is what I find so wonderful, that not a day goes by … hardly a day, without some addition to one’s knowledge however trifling.” But the joke is never really on Winnie; in fact, there is little to indicate that she has done anything but make the very best of her circumstances. Beckett never abandoned his affection for his characters, but he never condescended to them, either. The genius of Ms. Wiest is that just beneath her breathy, matronly chirrup lies surprising complexity; she lulls us with geniality until, turning on a dime, she swerves into tragedy, making this Happy Days all the more devastating and unforgettable.
Happy Days runs through May 28th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 2 hours. One intermission.