Yale Rep's 'Happy Days' A Match For Today's World Of Uncertainty

Dianne Wiest's excellent Winnie in Yale Rep's "Happy Days" is sensual, reserved and formal

Samuel Beckett's plays have a place, time and manner all their own. But they do not exist in a vacuum.

The Yale Repertory Theatre production of "Happy Days," Beckett's classic meditation on life, nature, optimism and obsolescence is beautifully suited to the world right now.

The Yale Repertory Theatre could not have known, when it was announced over a year ago that Dianne Wiest would be starring in "Happy Days" at the theater this month, that the weather outside would conform so well to the landscape of Beckett's play. It could scarcely have expected the political turmoil of the last few weeks, which complements the play's commentary on complacency, control and uncertainty.

"Happy Days" takes place in and around a "low mound of earth." In Izmir Ickbal's scenic design, small plants grow sporadically in that earth, though the bright, sunny blue sky appears to be permanent. We've experienced quite a few days like that this spring, yet many trees are still as bare as they were in winter. Did the Rep consult a farmer's almanac when planning its season?

An almanac is a good guidepost for "Happy Days," which has the pithy, orderly sense of a daily diary. It also conveys a sense of duty and follows a cyclical natural pattern, with its half-buried protagonist Winnie (Wiest) regularly being woken by loud bells so she can welcome in another "happy day."

Beckett finished writing "Happy Days" 65 years ago this month. The playwright had been married two months earlier, and "Happy Days" certainly has something to say about long-term relationships. But the play is largely about "settling," in all the senses of that word. Winnie is settled in her mound, praying and orating. Her inexpressive spouse, Willie, played by Jarlath Conroy, according to the stage directions, takes his straw boater hat, "settles it on head, rakish angle, disappears." He does this three times. Winnie continually uses the phrase "all this time" and the word "still."

"May one still speak of time?," she asks. "You are still recognizable, in a way," she tells Willie. And she says this:

Ah yes, so little to say, so little to do, and the fear so great, certain days, of finding oneself ... left, with hours still to run, before the bell for sleep, and nothing more to say, nothing more to do, that the days go by, certain days go by, quite by, the bell goes, and little or nothing said, little or nothing done.

The Rep's "Happy Days" reminds us that, in some respects, modernist theater can be quaint and old-fashioned. The stage has been turned into a proscenium, replete with footlights and red velvet curtains. Winnie has so many props — an umbrella, a magnifying glass, a "small ornate brimless hat" — that some of her speeches nearly resemble a vaudeville act.

Director James Bundy, who is also the longest-serving dean of the Yale School of Drama, is as good at packaging a show as he is at directing them. Several of the shows he's helmed at the Rep consciously acknowledge the Rep's illustrious history. Bundy returned Paul Giamatti, a stand-out YSD student of the early '90s, to the Rep to star in "Hamlet," and lured Charles Dutton back with the lead role in "Death of a Salesman." Wiest famously appeared at the Rep around 35 years ago in two Ibsen plays, "Hedda Gabler" in 1981 and "A Doll House" in 1982. Both are about married women who can't help feeling confined, which is a pretty literal definition of "Happy Days."

Bundy has a high intellect but also the spirit of an entertainer. He doesn't let this play, and its earthbound denizens, lie fallow, yet he understands that nothing should be done to undermine the full impact of Beckett's words.

Dianne Wiest's voice and face are made for Winnie, but in a production that is highly respectful of every punctuation mark in the dialogue and every detail of the stage directions, physically Wiest only barely corresponds with Beckett's exacting description of the character: "About fifty, well preserved, blond for preference, plump, arms and shoulders bare, low bodice, big bosom, pearl necklet." Wiest is fabulously fit, and neither plump nor bosomy. In the pantheon of Winnies — a role many actresses have played as garrulous and silly — Wiest stands out as being sensual, reserved, formal. The black gown she wears makes her look like she's been to a party, although we know she hasn't because she's buried up to that "low bodice" in a "low mound of earth."

The attractiveness and intense internalized energy Wiest brings to this demanding role are hardly drawbacks. Her expressive face is easy to focus on, especially in the play's second act, where Winnie is even less mobile than before. Wiest has a great way of pursing her lips, thinning her smile and otherwise exercising her mouth.

As Willie, Conroy is subdued, subordinate and often completely out of sight. We don't even see his face for the entire first act. In some productions of "Happy Days" (including Hartford Stage's in 1998), Willie seemed more present, more of a distraction. This one is Winnie's show, and Conroy's Willie is willing to be another of her props.

"Happy Days" is a large, full canvas, and can be experienced many happy ways, depending on one's mood. This one — lean, clean, clear and reverent — is attuned to the time and season. Be happy it's here.

"HAPPY DAYS" by Samuel Beckett, directed by James Bundy and starring Dianne Wiest and Jarlath Conroy, is at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven through May 21. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., with an added matinee May 11 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $54 to $90, $25 for students. Information: 203-432-1234,

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