Rejoice, Beckett fans! Short of an actual festival, it’s rare to have the opportunity to see two productions of the same Beckett play in a single season. SCENA Theatre’s latest production of Happy Days, featuring DC great Nancy Robinette alongside Stephen Lorne Williams, proves Beckett’s work to be deep and adaptable as it is specific and strange.
Coming only four months after a more intimate production at CulturalDC, SCENA’s take (directed by Artistic Director Robert McNamara) clearly invites comparisons. You’re not going to get many of those here, however, though feel free to check out the review of the earlier production.
The production takes a realistic direction with its scenery, a beachside sand dune by designer Michael Stepowany under blue skies and a single, fluffy white cloud. The set is intensely familiar to any beach-goer. I’ve seen that dune, the same broken slat fence stretching across it, the same clumps of beachgrass dotting its surface. That reality and familiarity make the sight of a woman buried up to her waist in the sand an even stranger one.
Nancy Robinette’s Winnie, dressed for a night out or a trip to church, is sprawled face down on the dune from the moment the audience enters the space. The lights are on full blast, and the audience certainly isn’t being quiet. So why does Winnie stay asleep? While the fourth wall is the simplest (and most common) explanation for this particular technique, the details of Beckett’s world give it a more sinister twist. Winnie’s sleeping and waking are determined by the alarm that announces when to be active and when to close her eyes (must keep them closed!). Even asleep, Winnie’s world is unchanging, and the passage of time is arbitrarily enforced. It’s a small detail, but it helps set the tone for the production.
That tone, it seems to me, is tragedy. A farce of a tragedy, to be sure, but a tragedy nonetheless. Robinette’s Winnie is a victim of her circumstances, and her attempts at appreciating life are tinged by desperation. This Winnie is older, and every day lived incorrectly – a song sung too early, or a missed opportunity to sing – is a chance that may not come again. Winnie has her small genuine pleasures, such as seeing Willie (her husband? her lover?) or hoisting her parasol, but even these are fickle. The parasol burns; Willie fails to respond. Robinette’s success lies in her ability to balance her characters’ fresh experience of each new up or down with the sense that the ups and downs don’t matter, in the grand scheme of things.
The role of Willie, silent, grunting, and monosyllabic for much of the play, can often be reduced to a sort of non-role. Winnie requires an actress of stature; Willie can make do with a warm body. Luckily, Stephen Lorne Williams is far beyond that minimum requirement. Williams has a comic gravitas that simultaneously acknowledges the absurdities of Beckett’s play and the tragedy of the characters’ situation. His Willie is heartbreaking and hilarious in his own right.
In SCENA’s Happy Days the second act, inexplicable in some productions, seems inevitable. Winnie’s loss of mobility allows the rest of the play to make a terrible kind of sense, explaining both her clinging to the past and her attempts to order the present. One imagines a creeping of the sand into the characters’ lives and Winnie’s adjustments of her ritual. One imagines her growing desperation as clinging to that ritual becomes the entirety of her life. One imagines what the future has in store for Winnie. There may be small joys and many laughs along the way, and yet – one imagines.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Happy Days plays through July 5, 2014 at SCENA Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H St. NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.