Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
When the curtain first rises, we see Winnie doing her best to sleep and then awaken to welcome the day, bound as she is to the ground. Next to her is a large black pocketbook which she is constantly pulling items from, including such things as lipstick, a handkerchief, her glasses, and, most alarmingly, a gun. The gun is left out throughout the play and its very presence adds a degree of tension to the show.
There is also the character of Willie (the able Jarlath Conroy), who has minimal dialogue and seems to be there mostly to give Winnie someone to talk to. She cajoles Willie, begs him to do things and to hand her various items, and carries on a mostly one-sided conversation with him. The audience actually doesn't get to see Willie until the second act, when Winnie is buried up to her neck. It is within this basically static situation that the play unfolds.
Which brings us back to how revelatory Dianne Wiest is as Winnie. Again and again, she finds small moments that make her performance consistently fascinating. When she utters the phrase, "the old style," one feels the ache in her heart; and her habit of repeating the word "no" is almost chilling. Wiest's endless invention and unexpected line readings keep the audience glued to Winnie's plight throughout.
Just as it would be impossible to do a production of Happy Days without a topnotch performer in the role of Winnie, the play also calls for a director with the skill to maintain interest throughout the two-hour running time. Yale Repertory Theatre is blessed to have director James Bundy at the helm, and, not only does he work wonders with his leading lady, but also with his design team. With the mountain of earth contrasted against a bold blue sky behind it, Izmir Ickbal's scenic design is striking and wonderful. Stephen Strawbridge is the able lighting designer, and Alexae Visel's costume design for both Winnie and, especially, Willie in the second act is superb.
Ultimately, the show belongs to Dianne Wiest, as it must. Since After being familiar with her wonderful on-screen performances (especially in Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway), I am happy to report that Wiest is truly a revelation onstage, especially considering how daunting this role must be. In her hands, Yale Repertory Theatre's production of Happy Days is a surprising and extremely moving theatrical experience, and her superlative performance demands to be seen.
Happy Days continues performances at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT through May 21, 2016. For tickets, please visit www.yalerep.org or call the box office 203-432-1234.