The Boston Court’s elegant little space just up the street from the Ice House in Pasadena takes chances. My first encounter was a while back with an experimental piece turning on the Russia / Ukraine issues. There’s lots of parking and friendly / accommodating staff. It’s a professional venue from the moment you step into the lobby. I mention all of this because it sets the mood for the current production of Samuel Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS featuring Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub. Both are busy actors whose performances we have enjoyed for years. Dedicating themselves to this strenuous play speaks to what most theatre people already know. They enjoy giving a terrific performance.
This production is a total tour de force for Ms Adams as Winnie who appears smiling as the lights come up on Takeshi Kata’s rocky hunk of desolation. There’s a simple blue sky with occasional clouds, it’s surreal.
Winnie is buried up to her armpits and ample breasts in dirt. The mountain could be full scale and Winnie, a giantess who commands the peak. Or life sized. It really doesn’t matter because her ensuing rambling monologue ... all those words, words, words.. Flow like honey. Nuanced honey. “Great Mercies…” To memorize this play must have taken a wealth of love for Beckett. Winnie calls over her shoulder to her husband, Willie (Brooke’s husband, Tony Shalhoub), who lives in a cave just on the back side of the mountain. She has her bag. It is black. It sits there. She examines the contents. She withdraws a chrome plated six gun; kisses it and returns it to the bag. The black bag.
There is optimism underscored by fate and futility in Beckett’s play. He may want us to see the pointlessness of life and also still have Hope. To endure. Adams’ nuanced approach and patience with her failing, flailing husband, even in the nodding off parts (for Beckett can do that to us)… Great Mercies keep her and the audience engaged.
Adams is a beauty. She impressed me as a Marilyn Monroe at first. Blonde and buxom. Frilly white dress. All she has to work with are the words and her arms. Her facial expressions, especially in Act Two are priceless. The black bag and her concern for Willie engage. In Act One all we really see of Willie is the back of his balding head and stringy hair, as he attempts to relieve the heat of the day and protect himself from the sun. Shalhoub’s elegant gestures: spare and complete, allow us to understand that great acting can still be accomplished silently by an actor who ‘gets it!’ A broken straw boater is carefully placed and then given a rakish tilt. It defines unfortunate Willie.
A terrible bell keeps the couple on schedule. The Waking Bell and the Sleeping Bell. Where are we? In some of Beckett’s work we may already be in Hell or Limbo. In HAPPY DAYS, we are simply where Winnie and Willie are. In Act II, things get more difficult for Winnie, now buried up to her neck. No arms. No tits. She longs to see Willie. Her revolver rests just out of reach. At last Willie appears in full evening dress. He is formal from his battered top hat right down to his dilapidated spats. Winnie can see him and knows that he’s coming. The effort that Shalhoub exerts for the brief time he struggles and attempts to reach his bride is exhausting. At once comic and tragic, his top hat battered, his attire in shambles, he tries and tries and tries and tries to reach sweet Winnie.
Beckett examines the futility of life in many of his plays. HAPPY DAYS confronts us and embraces us and, if nothing else, shows us how managing day by day may bring ‘great mercies.’ Melanie Watnik’s costumes are elegant in their shabbiness. Director Andrei Belgrader guides the show flawlessly.
Highly recommended for an audience ready to be embraced by existential ideas and ready to see a perfect production of a difficult play.
HAPPY DAYS by Samuel Beckett
Opened September 13, 2014
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Sundays at 2 p.m. through October 12, 2014
One added performance on Wednesday, October 8, 2014
70 N. Mentor Ave, Pasadena, CA 91106