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'Happy Days' at the Mark Taper Forum

Dianne Wiest | Craig Schwartz
When life starts to feel monotonous, when you start to feel alone in your marriage, when the earth begins to pile up around you and you fear you might be buried alive, remember the gun in your purse.

Happy Days, directed by James Bundy, is a piece of absurdist theatre by Samuel Beckett. It's the story of Winnie (played by Dianne Wiest) and Willie (played by Michael Rudko) living out their golden years in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

When the curtain lifts, we see Winnie, buried up to her waist in the desolate sand that fills the stage, a beautiful, sad black corset exposed–hinting at what her life used to be before it happened, before she was buried. The sky is piercing blue. The lighting, by Stephen Strawbridge, is clinical, as if we, the audience, are peering into a forbidden display at The Natural History Museum.

Winnie begins to babble. "Another heavenly day." She speaks, largely, about how to fill her time–how she mustn't waste her more thrilling activities (such as rummaging through her big black purse) on the earlier portion of her day. She frequently calls out to Willie, her husband, but with little luck. He pops his head out of his hole every so often, but he doesn't give Winnie more than a grunt or two, and he never faces her.

A few months ago I called my mom on the phone and asked her about her day. She told me in bible study a few of the women spoke about how it was challenging for them to, sometimes, come up with a response to 'What did you do today?' My mom's day is filled with puttering. She cleans, she grocery shops, she prepares, she keeps a nice home. But as a report, she feels her list of accomplished to-dos is lacking. She tells me there are some days she needs to get creative about how to fill her time.

Eventually, Winnie gives in and sifts through her bag. She pulls out its contents, revealing a gun. She places it at a safe distance in the sand, still in reach but at a distance that'd require some effort to fetch.

She continues to babble. "So little to say, so little to do, and the fear so great." She fills the empty air with idioms, unanswered pleas to Willie, and comments about the importance of remaining positive.

In the second act, we find Winnie up to her neck in tightly packed sand. She is sadder, but maintains her air of desperate positivity. 

Just when we think Winnie is gone for good (dead, presumably, in his sand hole), he crawls out, sharply dressed, and attempts to reach for the gun so purposefully placed by his partner. He collapses before he can get a hand around the sun-baked metal.

Academy Award winner Wiest is very good in the role of Winnie. Not just anyone can fill a part that monologues for an hour and forty minutes with nuance, empathy, and an acute understanding of human nature. Thanks to Wiest, Winnie was not stuck in a post-apocalyptic sand coffin, she was every woman lost in a silent marriage, every woman who does not know how to answer 'What did you do today?' 


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