Directed by Susan Sargeant
Scenic Design Rodney Dobbs
Costume Design –Christina Cook
Lighting Design –Callie Ross
Sound Design- Lowell Sargeant
Stage Manager- Marie Charlson
Stephanie Dunnam – Winnie
Bill Jenkins -Willie
Reviewed Performance 10/11/2013
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Celebrating their sixteenth year, WingSpan Theatre Company opens the season with Happy Days, an absurdist play that reiterates Samuel Beckett’s search for the meaning of existence and the dubious relationships that tie one to another, to the universe and to time, both past and present. If that sounds a bit heavy, know that the play is funny and its theme of the human desire for connection is alive and thriving. Absurdism, as defined, is “A philosophy holding that humans exist in a meaningless universe and that any search for order will bring them into direct conflict with this universe”. It is also defined as “An act or instance of the ridiculous”. After all the behavior of our political leaders in the last several days, I’d say we’re all floating in a sea of absurdism.
The absurd are those who seek value and meaning in life but can never find any; not that’s it logically impossible, but rather, humanly impossible. Absurdism began as early as the 19th century with Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Of the literary absurdists, Nilolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre are amongst the most well-known. But for my money, the master of aburdist writing is Samuel Barclay Beckett.
Samuel Becket had several labels placed on him modernist, postmodernist to later writers such as Vaclav Havel, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter who considered him their mentor, and with his later writings, minimalist. Experimental writers from the Beat generation through the 60’s were influenced by him and major 20th century composers, like one of my favorites, Philip Glass, have created musical works based on his texts.
Born in Ireland in 1906, Beckett studied at Trinity College in Dublin, wrote, taught and finally settled in Paris just before the outbreak of WWII and the city’s eventual Nazi occupation. He became a courier for the French Resistance and his writings were mostly in French because, as he said, it was easier to write “without style”. He became a literary Renaissance man, writing novels, plays, short stories, novellas, poetry and non-fiction. He wrote for radio, television and film, and translated collections and long works including, interestingly enough, “Negro: An Anthologyand “Anthology of Mexican Poems”.
It was upon Beckett’s return to Dublin in 1945 that he had a revelation that was to change the direction of his future writings. He felt he would always be in the shadow of James Joyce, a fellow Irishman and one-time close friend. While Joyce had gone in the direction of “knowing more as a way to understand the world and control it”, Beckett chose the way of less, of taking away, failure, exile and loss. That definition became both his way of life in poverty and the focus of his work.
From that time on, Beckett’s work gravitated towards compactness, or what Martin Esslin’s bible, Theatre of the Absurd, called minimalist. That title would come to be an understatement at his most extreme, his 1969 piece, Breath, lasted only 35 seconds and had no characters, and his 1972 play, Not I, consisted solely of “a moving mouth with the rest of the stage in darkness”.
In the fifteen years after the war, he produced four of his major plays, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days. Each offered a bleak take on the human condition, coupled with black comedy and gallows humor. In keeping with his new found thinking, his two-act play, Waiting for Godot was described as “a play in which “nothing happens, twice”. The two characters in Endgame are trapped in trash cans, peeking out occasionally to speak, and Krapp’s Last Tape concerns an older man talking to and listening to a recording of his much younger self. Happy Days has the main character, Winnie, encased up to her waist in the earth while husband Willie remains always just out of reach.
Nestled in the intimate space of the Bath House Cultural Center, WingSpan Theatre Company has produced a very entertaining and engaging interpretation of this minimalist work and made it work on almost every level.
The elephant in the room for any production of Happy Days is the mound of sand or earth in which Winnie finds herself day after glorious day. Beckett wanted a balance between symmetry and artificiality in the set and reminiscent of a seaside postcard. Many theatres go the realistic route of sand with flecks of weeds here and there. Others use real grass and rocks and I’ve even seen a tree planted close by though it clearly states there is no shade. Rodney Dobbs scenic design and Callie Ross’ lighting design took influences from cartoons and comic books as inspiration. The mound at first reminded me of Devil’s Tower, but actually it’s more of an undulating, lopsided layer cake of sand in shades of gray and purple. The flooring also has the feel of movement in ivory and swirled stripes of purple I could believe were windswept waves of sand. Rossback cyc illuminated cartoon clouds and blue sky and the passing of Winnie’s days flowed with a gradually shifting sunrise to sunset in pink, purple and blue, ending in brilliant shades of orange in Act I. During intermission the sky changed to cloudy dark blue, and then another day began again for Act II.
Winnie and Willie’s clothing were more traditional in design. Though one can only see Winnie’s top half, Costumer Christina Cook dressed her in a three-quarter sleeved dress with plunging neckline of the late 50’s time period, made more demure with the aid of her handkerchief. Her hair was conservatively upswept and she placed a simple, flowered hat on her head. Willie, on the other hand, remained stuck in the late 19th, early 20th century, sporting a straw bowler with his sleeveless undershirt and pajama bottoms. In Act II, he impressed Winnie attired in morning coat, vest, pants, spats and top hat quite the debonair suitor.
Lowell Sargeant’s sound design was rather minimal, consisting of an intentionally piercing alarm clock bell, glass breaking and some very brief peppy, slightly Hitchcockian music just before each act began. No one was credited for properties but the prerequisite “sun shadeumbrella and large tote bag with all Winnie’s essentials were in place for her to use throughout her days. For the first time, her bag reminded me of all the large purses and bags modern women tote around, carrying their worldly possessions.
The entire weight of the play rests on the shoulders of the two actors playing Winnie and Willie. Winnie has the vast majority of the lines, Willie mumbling and making lots of grunts, snorts and occasional monosyllable answers, much as any husband might resort to under the circumstance. Bill Jenkins played Willie with unusual flair and exuberance for someone who spends most of his time behind the mound, leaning against it reading the newspaper or taking a nap outside his cave. Jenkins pratfalls and Charlie Chaplin-like wobbling and shuffling endeared his character more than most others I’ve seen. His character’s humor and demeanor was broadened and more defined, balancing Winnie’s continual dialogue and anxiety with silence and acceptance. His rendition of “I Love You Sofrom The Merry Widow made my heart swell just as much as Winne’s.
I’ve seen three other productions of this play and performed Winnie in college. I love to see how each actress tackles the role of Winnie to make it her own.
Stephanie Dunnam’s interpretation was astounding in delivery (at over 80 minutes of non-stop speaking) and radiant in keeping Winnie from reducing to Mary Poppins optimism. Winnie has eternal hope to rise above her predicament but hope is wearing rather thin throughout the two acts. Dunnam ‘s continual rousing of Winnie’s positive nature only made her sinking into despair all the more powerful. Winnie uses words so as not to feel alone and to forget for even the briefest moments of her circumstances. Dunnam traveled through all Winnie’s fears, apprehensions, remembered joys and imaginary scenarios in a way that one could easily follow her sometimes nonsensical ramblings. The joyfulness in which she approached the character’s existence was heartwarming, heart wrenching and extremely humorous.
Most of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist plays deal with despair and the will to survive while facing an impossibly incomprehensible world. One of the characters in Endgame, Nell, best summarized his themes with, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness . . . Yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh . . . in the beginning. It’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh anymore.”
That’s how audiences might feel leaving WingSpan’s production. The characters are comical, the setting and situation absurd, but eventually the laughter subsides to thought-provoking silence and maybe a bit of wistfulness for our own happy days.
WingSpan Theatre Company
Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive, Dallas, TX 75218
Runs through October 26th
Thursday Saturday at 8:00 pm and Saturday at 2:00 pm, There will be Post Show Talk Backs on Friday, October 18th and 25th.
Ticket prices are: $18.00 Thursday evenings/Saturday matinees, and $20.00 Friday/Saturday evenings.
Pay What You Can performances are on Thursdays. Discounts available for seniors, students, KERA or STAGE members and confirmed groups of ten or more.
Student Rush tickets are sold one-half hour before curtain, if available.
For info & to purchase tickets, go to http://www.wingspantheatre.com/.
You may also purchase tickets by calling 214-675-6573 or at Wingspan@wingspantheatre.com