Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
There is little doubt that Beckett's tale is allegorical, but the nature and purpose of its hidden meaning has been a subject of endless debate since it first debuted in 1961. Is the play a metaphor for a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage? Does Winnie's endless prattle represent an overly intellectualized society more stagnant and useless than its animalistic ancestors? Or is Winnie's fixation on her meager possessions and physical appearance a more pointed critique of the materialistic and self-obsessed attitude women take on (or perhaps have foisted upon them) in modern society? Fortunately, director Alexander Burns' leaves these questions entirely to his audience and lets his production focus sharply on the characters on stage.
She is buried from the waist down from the moment the curtain opens, but the audience soon discovers that Winnie's situation is actually worse than it appears. In addition to being stuck in place, Winnie is subject to a blaring buzzer that dictates when she must wake and sleep. Her barren mound of earth sits directly in the piercing light of an unusually hot sun (rendered with an appropriately cruel glare by lighting designer Solomon Weisbard). Winnie's only companion is husband Willie, always close but barely responsive, living directly behind but never walking fully into her line of sight, occasionally exhibiting high level thought, but unable or unwilling to offer any meaningful assistance. Willie is like the fruit forever dangling before Tantalus, a promise of salvation that will never come to fruition.
E. Ashley Izard takes on the supremely challenging role of Winnie. Izard gives a strong performance in the first act, effectively conveying both intense frustration and relentless optimism. Unfortunately, the gray textile material connecting Izard to the mound of gravel is distractingly visible, leaving her entirely responsible for maintaining the illusion of being stuck in place. Winnie is often characterized as futilely optimistic because of her dire circumstances, but Izard's fraught and frenetic performance reminds us that if optimism is the only thing preventing mental and physical collapse it can hardly be considered useless. There are a few funny moments as Winnie rifles through her bag, and humorous interchanges when the laconic Willie (Gregory Isaac) comes up for air, but in the first act Izard is largely unable to tap into the ridiculous humor of the situation. The result is intellectually gratifying and intensely interesting, but not really emotionally engaging.
The emotional intensity increases exponentially in the second act. I do not want to reveal too much, but Izard is absolutely riveting despite scripted physical limitations that would challenge even the most skilled thespian. Isaac utters only a single word, but his brief performance is utterly heartbreaking and curiously cathartic.
More than 50 years after it first came to the stage, Happy Days still pushes the limits of what theater can be. Beckett's work is ambitious and serious and strange. It will leave your heart aching and your head spinning, but it is undoubtedly an experience worth having.
Quintessence Theatre Group's Happy Days runs through June 26th, 2016, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave in Mt Airy, Philadelphia, 19119. To purchase tickets visit QuintessenceTheatre.org or call 215-987-4450.