Peggy Ashcroft said that the role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days was a “summit part” for women like Hamlet was for men, and that many actresses would want to test themselves against it. Dianne Wiest played Winnie in an acclaimed production at Yale Rep in 2016, and now she is playing this summit part at Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn. Her Winnie is buried up to the waist in a veritable mountain of sand set against a very bright blue sky. There is a fancy red curtain that rises and falls between acts and old-fashioned lights at the bottom of the stage, and only these provide the music hall-like framework that Beckett calls for in his text.
Wiest has clearly set and molded her performance vocally down to every last upward and downward inflection, but this makes some sense for Winnie, who takes objects out of her black bag every day in a way that is clearly a soothing ritual for her. Beckett wrote that the worst thing he could think of was to be trapped and immobile in glaring sunlight that never faded and with a bell that tolled over and over again so that you could never quite get to sleep, and he also said that only a certain type of woman could ever live like that and still try to be optimistic.
Wiest inevitably brings a kind of wistful neuroticism to her Winnie and also a passive aggressiveness when dealing with Winnie’s near-silent husband Willie (Jarlath Conroy), who barely pays any attention to her constant talking. There is a powerful store of sexuality to mine in Happy Days and many double entendres in the dialogue, but Wiest stresses the prim side of Winnie, especially when she is scandalized by a dirty postcard that Willie has been looking at.
This Winnie only really gets going sexually when she remembers the last people who passed them by, a couple she recalls as either Mr. and Mrs. Shower or Mr. and Mrs. Cooker. Wiest gives this couple a lower-class old school New York voice, and she makes the male very bluntly curious about Winnie’s body. Different productions of Happy Days bring out different values in the text, and Wiest seems to be hinting that Winnie is also curious about this man and his interest in her. Winnie is stuck in sand to her waist in Act One and up to her neck in Act Two, and it feels here as if sexual neglect has been a large part of the hell of her existence, even if Winnie herself would be unlikely to admit it.
Wiest’s Winnie is a plaintive creation (the highness and girlishness of her voice is a part of that), happiest when putting on and taking off her glasses and saddest when she listens to a song from an old music box. Winnie is finally reduced to two things: the telling of a story about a girl frightened by a mouse and a song that she keeps putting off singing. She finally does sing that song at the very end of Happy Days, and it turns out to be the Merry Widow Waltz from Franz Lehár’s operetta.
Maybe Winnie wanted to be a merry widow before she was nearly buried alive in sand? Wiest makes that feel like a distinct possibility, and she also makes us see the deadening effect of routine on a person who refuses to despair and cheerfully and sometimes just “cheerfully” submits to the torture of an unending life without shade or much sleep or much company.
Photos by Gerry Goodstein