Only Samuel Beckett would write a play about a woman buried up to her chest in a massive hill of sand, her only companions a taciturn old man and a bag containing drugstore goodies and a gun … and call it Happy Days.
On its surface, the play, now on stage at New City Theater, is little more than a faintly optimistic two-hour monologue, delivered by a Pollyanna-ish older woman, Winnie (Mary Ewald). Lurking just beneath the typical Beckett circumlocution is a profound treatise on loss and physical decay that disturbs as often as it illuminates.
In a sun-drenched wasteland, Winnie is buried up to her bosom. The hill that is slowly consuming her, designed by Nina Moser and John Kazanjian, is a barren gray mass of sand, devoid of life, with the exception of a single egg-carrying ant that scurries away as quickly as it appears. How Winnie came to be buried in the hill is never explained. Why her Neanderthal-like companion, Willie (Seanjohn Walsh), does not dig her out is also not addressed.
Beckett wryly acknowledges his 1961 script’s silence on the subject when Winnie recollects the appearance of a couple of rubes, the “last humankind to stray this way,” who gawked at her, then tactlessly gave voice to exactly the logistical questions running through the audience’s minds. (Is she standing or sitting in the hill? Is she wearing any clothes below the waist? And, most tellingly, what does her being buried in the hill “mean?”) Their curiosity unsatisfied, they left her stranded.
It doesn’t matter what the hill “means” to Beckett. This is because you have been buried in this hill at one point or another in your life. You might be in the process of being swallowed up, feet first, right now. For you, the hill might be a soul-killing job, a toxic relationship, a steadily creeping disease in a loved one, or (lucky you!) Beckett’s own brand of existential despair. Attacking the problem of the symbolic hill from an intellectual standpoint is futile, at least in New City’s emotionally affecting production. Throughout her slow consumption, Winnie maintains exactly the sort of anxious conviction that it’s not so very bad and she must not complain, which you will recognize. And that recognition will make you transcendentally uncomfortable while fully validating your most irrational emotions, as only a skillfully symbolic piece of theater can.
There’s not much that can be said about Willie, who only makes a full appearance (i.e. more than just the back of his head) at the end of Act Two. He’s a man, according to Winnie, with “no zest for anything. No interest in life.” Living in a hole just out of Winnie’s sight on the back side of the hill, he emerges periodically to peruse the newspaper, study a pornographic postcard, and grunt barely intelligible acknowledgements of her running commentary.
He does, however, possess a talent that Winnie longs for. He can doze through the insistent bell that rudely yanks her away from sleep, the only true escape she can achieve in her confined state. “Marvelous gift! Wish I had it,” she says wistfully. Trapped as she is, Winnie forces herself from moment to moment, cherishing her memories of girlhood freedom and cheerily insisting that today will be a happy day.
And then there’s the bag. Winnie’s only source of stimulus, other than her unceasing prattle to the monosyllabic Willie, is a large black and white shopping bag filled with the objects necessary to what might be termed the only remaining ritual in a postmodern world: personal grooming. Toothpaste and a toothbrush, a mirror, a tube of lipstick — all are deployed in carefully predetermined order by Winnie. These trifles assume a sacramental quality as she lays them out one by one on the hill, until she is surrounded by them. The gun, at once her most dreaded and precious object, is kept just within reach at all times, its implication all too clear.
In Happy Days, Director John Kazanjian has a whole lot of words to work with and practically no action. Beyond Willie’s very brief appearances, there is no movement on stage. Embedded in the hill, Ewald is restricted to the use of her arms and busy hands during the first act. Following intermission, she loses those, too, to the all-consuming sand.
An impressive partnership between Kazanjian and Ewald becomes evident as the play winds tighter and tighter in a spiral of despair. Between them, they have created a situation and a character that are grotesquely compelling. When we’re finally left with nothing but a talking head on stage, the effect is bizarre and mesmerizing.
Ewald’s talents as a performer are brought to shocking light at this point, when she has nothing to work with except her glittering, hollow eyes and a voice that cracks on each of her formerly cheerful pronouncements. Her control of every muscle in her face is astonishing. With just a minute twitch of her lips or a swift, unblinking sweep of her eyes, she creates the sort of double-barrel impact that many actors can’t manage with their entire bodies. She becomes a creepy, powerless figure of pathos that you’ll recognize from your darkest memories.
If you go: Happy Days is on stage through March 24 at New City Theater. $15-$20. For more information, visit www.newcitytheater.org.