THEATER | The fool in the hill: Beckett’s “Happy Days” at the Guthrie

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Per the playwright’s instruction, the set for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at the Guthrie has “a maximum of simplicity and symmetry.” Well, maybe not a maximum of simplicity—the grassy hill in which the character Winnie spends the entire play embedded is realized in the Dowling Studio with the lifelike detail of a diorama in a natural history museum. It’s an appropriate context for this crisply executed production of a 1961 script that very much breathes the avant-garde air of its time.

happy days, a play written by samuel beckett and directed by rob melrose. presented through march 8 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($18-$34) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

The play’s bracing premise is that the fiftyish Winnie (Sally Wingert) is symbolically trapped in the earth, filling her days with simple routines and sentimental reminisces while her inattentive husband (Richard Ooms) rolls about the hill grunting and indulging various animal impulses. Again and again, Winnie cries out for the slightest sign of recognition from her beastlike mate, taking great satisfaction in the least gesture that he may even be possible of caring the slightest bit about her wants and needs. She prattles on about the very modest comforts available to her, while never daring to question whether a richer existence might be possible. By the second act, the earth has consumed her body up to the neck, and she and her weakened husband are left staring longingly at Brownie the handgun, which offers a release they dare not accept until it’s too late.

This is essentially a one-woman show, and Wingert is flawless as the desperate housewife who repeatedly declares what a “happy day” she’s having. By design, Happy Days is a difficult play to sit through, and it would be tempting for an actress to relieve the audience’s pain by letting us know she’s in on the joke—but Wingert doesn’t let us off that easily. She conveys, without overplaying, both the humor and the pathos of Beckett’s stark scenario.

This is the kind of challenging material the Guthrie, founded in 1963, was made for, and the company’s multi-stage building is proving its value by allowing the company to mount this production simultaneously with the lavish, crowd-pleasing Two Gentlemen of Verona. Happy Days is not a crowd-pleaser, but theatergoers who are nostalgic for the unsparing art—rather than the groovy dances—of the mid-20th century will leave the Dowling Studio very pleased indeed.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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