Review: ‘Happy Days’ at Quintessence Theatre Group in Philadelphia

All dolled up in her fanciest dress, she’s smiling and chipper. It’s a sunny day, and Winnie is not going to let a little thing like the gigantic mound of dirt she’s buried in up to her waist bring her down.

After all, she says, “Things could be worse.”

Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days has a lot of funny moments, though it’s not exactly a laugh riot. It’s often dry and frustratingly difficult. But it’s a fascinating spectacle. And it’s worth seeing for the determination and variability that E. Ashley Izard brings to the enormous and challenging role of Winnie.

E Ashley Izard (Winnie). Photo by Shawn May.
E Ashley Izard (Winnie). Photo by Shawn May.

For two hours, Izard is submerged in dirt – up to her waist in act one, up to her neck in act two. But Winnie finds ways to busy herself – polishing her toothbrush, rooting around in her handbag, lifting her parasol to protect herself from the sun. She can’t stop talking, either, though it’s usually in a vain attempt to start a conversation with Willie, her aloof, nearly-silent husband. She seems to change the subject every minute or so, her mind flitting around, trying to avoid the subject at hand – namely, her survival.

Greg Isaac. Photo by
Gregory Isaac (Willie). Photo courtesy of Quintessence Theatre.

In act two, panic finally sets in, as she faces the desperate realization that she might be stuck forever in this morass. But even as things seem bleak, Izard’s Winnie still can’t stop a wide grin from crossing her face.

“Can’t complain,” she says. “Mustn’t complain. Too much to be thankful for.”

Beckett’s plays, with their curious speeches, deadpan wit, cryptic wit, and carefully prescribed actions, can be a tough endurance test for audiences. And if you’re not a Beckett fan, Quintessence’s Happy Days probably won’t turn you into one.

But Alexander Burns direct Happy Days with confidence, and he treats Winnie with respect. Winnie can sometimes come off as a fool, but in Burns’ hands, she’s an indomitable heroine, fighting for dignity against the strongest odds imaginable. (Burns also designed the set, a mound that impresses with its mass and detail.)

Happy Days is a strong showcase for a great performer, and Izard, with her expressive face and patrician bearing, rises to the challenge. She’s also paired well with Gregory Isaac as Willie, who has the gift of mobility that Winnie lacks but does little with it.

No matter how worn down she is, Winnie perseveres. And watching Izard persevere is a pleasure.

Running Time: 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Happy Days plays through June 26, 2016 at Quintessence Theatre Group performing at The Sedgwick Theater – 7137 Germantown Avenue (Mount Airy), in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call (215) 987-4450, or purchase them online.