Scena Theatre Happy DaysBy David Siegel • Jun 17th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Scena Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington DC
Through July 5th
100 minues, with intermission
Reviewed June 14th, 2014
Some reviews can be a struggle. What new can be written about Nobel Prize winning playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and his masterworks about the human condition? As for Beckett’s allusive, yet curiously poetic, Happy Days what might it say for contemporary audiences in these current times. Does the “old style” of existentialism still set the mind aflutter?
Let’s be clear, the 1961 Happy Days is theater with deeply drawn substance to chew on especially for those with an affinity for post-WW II “Theatre of the Absurd” chops. As Scena Literary Manager Anne Nottage wrote in program notes, the “Theater of the Absurd” was hell-bent “to shake audience from their conventional viewing habits.”
As Nottage wrote, playwrights like Beckett wanted to force audiences “to think about the absurdity and unresolved issues in their own lives.” For Beckett’s Happy Days Scena Theatre Artistic Director Robert McNamara wrote in his program notes that the play “presents us as audience with an astonishing central image…a veritable earth goddess.” She is living in “a kind of post-nuclear” world, hungering for with “mutual need and dependency.”
For your reviewer, recent new events brought images to mind of a genderless central protagonist as a POW or a prisoner of the state locked away in some hole of a maximum security prison, with sleep deprivation the main tool of control by an unseen force. The prisoner must find a way to survive until, well just until. So the ritual of talking, with words pouring forth gives a semblance of living.
Legendary DC actor and multi-Helen Hayes recipient, Nancy Robinette is a confident actor to behold in her role Winnie in Happy Days. She takes on her character who is entombed in the earth up to her chest in Act I and in Act II finds herself swallowed by sand up to her neck. Robinette spends her time before us as a sad eyed prophet with long bursts of optimism and a bright smile to carry her through her sun-lit, yet dreary day. No matter the nature of her miserable day, it is a happy day that she conjures in her mind even as tears are so close.
We are drawn to Robinette’s simple humanity as Winnie; the naturalness of her presentation. It is as if being stuck in a mound of sand is to be expected. Vocally her tone is a paint brush of words, with diction tight. Some words are drawn out in a hissing long breath as she often pronounces the phrase “the old style.” And yes there are little jokes, some about sexuality, that bring her and the laughter.
Visually the lines on Robinette’s face are the lines of a life lived. Her eyes, oh her eyes! They are matched and move to the words she speaks so smoothly. Her eyes are heavily covered with a thick cobalt blue eye shadow which can make her eyes small and sorrowful and then burst into being large moons of happiness. And she is just stuck in place at the center of the audience’s attention.
Between a piercing bell for waking and a bell to announce time for rest, the character Winnie struggles to pace her day. She tries to stay alert and even has a routine to brush her teeth and put on make-up. Well, at least while she can move her arms to reach her close-by leather hand bag.
Winnie’s only human contact is Willie (a loud, annoyed, very precise Stephen Lorne Williams), her husband or partner. He is largely unseen to the audience and not seen at all by Winnie until a few short critical moments as the play reaches its end. He lives in a small cave out of Winnie’s view from her high mound of earth. One trait that Winnie admires about her Willie is his ability to sleep which she cannot. She calls it a “marvelous gift.”
In Act I, actor Williams is seen a few times, but only from the rear. From what the audience sees, he is dressed in quite informal attire, with a straw hat covering his bald pate. In the final moments of the play the audience finally sees Williams as he crawls up the mound toward Robinette in full formal attire including spats. As he reaches up toward Robinette, he becomes frozen almost touching her hand. Or is he reaching for the gun that is also near-by? With his last word; “win” he brings a final outburst of words and humming of a waltz from Robinette. And darkness falls.
Scenic designer Michael C. Stepowany has given the audience a desolate, dun-colored waste land; a dry desert of a landscape barren of life. There is a mound in the center for Robinette and a backdrop of a blue sky with one fair weather puffy cloud, which a photographers would relish. Multiple Helen Hayes nominated lighting designer Marianne Meadows provides halogen white-hot lighting worthy of a New Mexico desert, with a hint of amber to highlight the set’s sand and pebbles surrounding Robinette.
The costume design by Alisa Mandel gives Robinette a matronly look. She is in a dark blue dress along with a strand of large pearls around her neck. Robinette is topped-off with a little pill of a hat with some eye-blinking ostrich feathers shooting up from the front. Filled to the brim is a black leather hand bag, just in Robinette’s reach during Act I. Inside is a bevy of items by way of props designer Joyce Milford.
Denise R. Rose’s sound design has a most piercing buzzer bell to wake character Winnie as well as to inform her when it is time for a moment of rest. It certainly startled the audience at the performance.
“So little to say, so little to do, and the fear so great,” says the character Winnie. Yet she finds a way to go on looking ever forward to other Happy Days. That is, should tomorrow come for her.
Your reviewer is brought back to Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” with its final refrain, “who do they think could bury you?” For Robinette’s Winnie as created by Beckett, sorrow is always breaking in, just as she finds a reason to be optimistic even as she is buried ever so slowly.
Photos by Don Summers, Jr.
- Winnie: Nancy Robinette
- Willie: Stephen Lorne Williams
Artistic and Design
- Director: Robert McNamara
- Scenic Designer: Michael C. Stepowany
- Costume Designer: Alisa Mandel
- Lighting Designer: Marianne Meadows
- Dramturg: Gabriele Jakobi
- Sound Designer: Denise R. Rose
- Stage Manager: Lena Salinas
- Production Manager: Michael Sperber
- Properties: Joyce Milford
Disclaimer: Scena Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10480.
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.