‘Happy Days’ anything but joyous

Laura Gordon as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” produced by Renaissance Theaterworks. Winnie climbs half way out of a hole in which she is entrapped, kept busy with a mind-numbing daily routine.

Samuel Beckett certainly had his tongue in his cheek when he titled the play now showing at Renaissance Theaterworks “Happy Days.” Perhaps “Dismal Days” would have been more fitting.

The lead-in cacophonous sounds are foreboding and set the tone of what is to follow. It contrasts with the stagnancy of the lives of Winnie and Willie.

This two-character dialogue, which is mostly monologue, features two miserable married people stuck in their individual and collective ruts. One is imprisoned in a barren mound of desiccated matter, and the other in a hole, which he crawls out of occasionally to read the paper. We see him fully in all his pitifulness just once in the play. Todd Denning makes his final scene quite dramatic.

Winnie, superbly played by Laura Gordon, sticks the top half of her body, out of a hole in the mound where she is entrapped by meaningless routines day after day. In Act II, we only see her head. (Perhaps she is dying in pieces, which, perhaps, we all do.) She talks to Willie, but he seldom listens, so she ends up talking to herself, and to us, but doesn’t acknowledge us as there.

She has a small valise on stage in which she stores her necessities and several treasures, among them a gun and a music box. The latter gives her momentary pleasure; the former, an escape route if needed.

We go through her routines with her: saying her prayers, brushing her teeth, combing her hair, putting on her hat, though she is going nowhere, and waiting for the end of the day when she can escape into sleep. She reminisces about earlier times in her life when she and Willie were happier. She describes her lonely existence, occasionally eking out a crumb of joy.

Winnie portrays a plethora of emotions. Her face is very expressive, but fear and anxiety seem to dominate. She shows some modicum of joy when she opens her music box and when Willie finally emerges and looks at her.

Some patrons left at the intermission, probably having their fill of morbidity and meaninglessness.

Beckett represents a member of the “Theatre of the Absurd,” along with Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and Harold Pinter. It is drama that focuses on lives filled with nonsense and devoid of purpose and meaning, inspired by some of the major slaughters of the 20th century. As humans became more adept at destroying each other, these artists’ works conveyed a deep sense of despair and disbelief.

This play, and all the others that sprung from this school of thought, make a valid point. Sometimes we humans engage in behaviors that make no sense or, at times, are downright hideous. But this is not the whole picture.

For my part, I will not deny the dismal, but I will also not deny the beautiful, the good and the hopeful. So I will never be a big fan of Beckett, though I do credit Gordon for her acting ability in this extremely challenging role, scenic designer Lisa Schlenker for her ingenious mound, Josh Schmidt for his ominous sound design and Director Marie Kohler for her brave choice.

GLANCE

“Happy Days”

The drama runs through Feb. 16 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center , 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee . Call 414-291-7800 or visit

www.r-t-w.com.

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