Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’ is delightful

The Guthrie Theater’s production only suffers from lack of Fonzie.

PHOTO COURTESY MICHAL DANIEL. Ooms and Wingert and their elaborate set.

Ashley Goetz

PHOTO COURTESY MICHAL DANIEL. Ooms and Wingert and their elaborate set.

âÄúHappy DaysâÄù WHEN: Feb. 18 – March 8 WHERE: Guthrie Theater TICKETS: $18 – $30 If recession-induced production cuts have hit the Guthrie hard this year, then Samuel BeckettâÄôs âÄúHappy DaysâÄù must be the budget departmentâÄôs wet dream. Rob MelroseâÄôs charming production of the 1961 minimalist play from the Irish auteur utilizes little more than a mound of dirt, a picturesque backdrop and two seasoned Guthrie veterans. The result is a stark and skillfully constructed take on a masterâÄôs work. âÄúHappy Days,âÄù staged in the intimate Dowling Studio , pulls us along on what is essentially a one-woman show. Winnie, played by Sally Wingert, is a middle-aged woman literally trapped up to the waist in a small hill of sandy soil. Awoken each morning by an ominous and chaotically powerful bell pulsing from above, and equipped only with a hat, parasol and bag of essential items, Winnie begins her day cheerfully, making the best of an absurd situation while her crotchety and seemingly disinterested husband Willie (Richard Ooms) putters around in the background. Allegedly, Samuel Beckett wrote âÄúHappy DaysâÄù after a friendâÄôs wife suggested he do something more upbeat. The two-act avant-garde playâÄôs premise is likely a metaphor for the incarcerating effect of something or other , but nonetheless the story is regarded as more comical and far less dreary than the majority of BeckettâÄôs work. Yet amidst WinnieâÄôs heartfelt musings and generally sunny outlook, âÄúHappy DaysâÄù retains a degree of that bleak and melancholy reflection on life and humanity which the author was so famous for. Willie and WinnieâÄôs relationship is a pitifully one-sided affair with Winnie talking more to herself than to her husband, and having to survive on little more than a sparse word or two in response to her barrage of queries and ramblings. Slow by definition and difficult to get through, âÄúHappy DaysâÄù is made infinitely more entertaining through WingertâÄôs pitch-perfect portrayal of Winnie and her manic shifts from nostalgia and contentedness to stark pathos. Ooms âÄô Willie is teeming with subtle emotion; the actor brings an uncanny compassion and comedy to a character whose face time on stage is one step away from nonexistent, effectively rendering WillieâÄôs rare cameos and rarer speech much more impactful. The combination of director Rob MelroseâÄôs commitment to unconventional theatre, Ooms and WingertâÄôs expert chops and an impeccably designed set is not surprisingly a powerful one. Combined, the result is an unquestionably shining success. When the curtain closes on the second act of âÄúHappy Days,âÄù the viewer will assuredly be wishing Beckett had written a third.