Nostalgia has sometimes been defined alternately as an exquisite pain or a longing for a past that never really existed. Both of those ideas were at the forefront of my mind during CulturalDC’s presentation of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. It’s a play that’s as painful and touching as it is funny, and let me tell you – it’s plenty funny.
Happy Days is the story of Winnie (Karen Lange) and Willie (Christian Sullivan). Winnie is a woman buried up to her breasts in a mound of sand. Winnie likes to talk, and is an eternal optimist. Willie is a man who likes to sleep. Willie barely talks at all.
I’m tempted to end the review there, because no amount of description can really do Beckett justice. In some ways, Happy Days is a slice-of-life play. But it’s a very strange slice, and a very strange life.
Winnie spends her time buried in a mound of sand, a set designed by Joe C. Klug. She shares the mound with half-buried phones, cameras, televisions, and record players – all obsolete devices of connection, all purveyors of nostalgia. In the program, director Jess Jung confesses to an obsession with objects, and the way they litter the set brings home many of the plays more conceptual elements. Accompanied by a backdrop by Art and Photography Director Ryan Maxwell, the set gives us a disjointed day at the beach, like a family vacation snapshot no one can remember taking. Objects are a stand-in for relationships and memories
Winnie’s day is governed by ritual, from the bell that wakes her and commands her to sleep to the repeated activities that comprise her daily routine. She takes joy in the small positives that occur, but always seems to resist the realization of how much she needs these moments. Nothing must happen until it’s the right time; nothing can happen until it’s the right time. Winnie talks to pass the time, but she’s acutely aware that she only has a certain amount of words to spend each day and a very large amount of time to fill. There’s a desperation to Winnie that is both heartbreaking and compelling.
In some ways, Winnie has an abusive relationship with the concept of time. No matter what happens, nothing seems to change. When something does change, there’s a sense that things have always been that way. Winnie is equally afraid of the horrible absurdity of her situation and of the possibility of real change. Willie is less of a companion than a living sign that things are as they have always been. Only able to interact with the objects in arms’ reach, Winnie takes frequent trips into a past she can barely recall. Her experience of the present is as a past-to-be; her repeated refrain is that “this will have been a happy day.” She’s already looking forward to adding the day to the stock of vague, happy days she can barely remember
As Winnie, Lange is a delight to watch. I’ve seen actors in living room sets and family dramas who don’t seem quite as comfortable as Lange does buried in a pile of sand. She makes it easy to believe that this is Winnie’s life, and that there’s no reason to question it. As Winnie, Lange is charming and irrepressible, and that just makes it hurt more when we see her optimism flag and fail. Sullivan’s performance as Willie is a little harder to qualify: he spends the better part of each act out of sight and most of his lines consist of grunts and sighs. But his vocal responses are pitch perfect, and he manages to underscore Winnie as both a tragic and comic figure.
Happy Days is the rare play that lives up to its own message. If nostalgia is an exquisite pain, so is this production. It hurt, at times, but there was laughter too, and if the two don’t balance out they’re both still worth having. If you don’t like the performance, take it up with Samuel Beckett; Lange and co. have nailed it.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Happy Days plays through February 23, 2014 at CulturalDC performing at The Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G St, NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.