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At PlayMakers Rep, Winnie Gets That Sinking Feeling in “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett

PlayMakers Repertory Company will kick off its ambitious 2010-11 season with a stellar PRC2 second-stage production of HAPPY DAYS, a 1961 masterpiece of the Theater of the Absurd, penned by avant-garde expatriate Irish playwright and 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Samuel Beckett (1906-89), on Sept. 8-12 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Guest director Rob Melrose will stage this offbeat two-character comedy with two of PlayMakers Rep’s brightest stars, Julie Fishell and Ray Dooley, playing Winnie and Willie.

Julie Fishell

Ray Dooley

When the curtain rises, Winnie is buried up to her waist in a mound of dirt. As the play progresses, she chatters on and on about trivialities, while she sinks deeper and deeper into the ground.

According to Beckett on Film, which produced a film version of HAPPY DAYS in 2001:

“Written in English and considered Beckett’s most cheerful piece, HAPPY DAYS features a woman buried up to her waist in a mound of sand. Winnie’s husband, Willie, appears only occasionally from his tunnel behind the mound. Winnie’s opening words, ‘Another heavenly day,’ set the tone for a long monologue which lasts until she can no longer busy herself with the contents of her enormous handbag. She follows the routine of the day — praying, brushing her teeth, reminiscing about the past and endlessly trying to recall ‘unforgettable lines’ that she has once read. By the end of the second act she is buried up to her neck, but she carries on chattering cheerfully.”

Indeed, at one point, Winnie remarks, “Ah well, what matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been a happy day after all, another happy day.”

PlayMakers guest director Rob Melrose recalls, “I first heard about [HAPPY DAYS] in high school. The co-founder and artistic director of The Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco, CA, adds, “I was already interested in Beckett then, and I bought a cassette tape of Irene Worth doing the play and listened to it in my car. There are lots of stage directions in the play, and this tape recording had every stage direction read aloud, so it was a strange way to experience the play for the first time.”

Melrose, who directed HAPPY DAYS in 2009 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN, says, “[HAPPY DAYS] is a very compact, compressed, intense experience that encapsulates all that is really important about life: love, happiness, companionship, survival, and appreciating the little things. Also, the role of Winnie is a tour de force for an actress, and it is really rewarding to work on it. It is also very funny as well as being poignant at times.

“I’m also a life-long fan of Beckett’s and have read everything he has written,” Melrose explains. “I’ve also directed KRAPP’S LAST TAPE [1958] and ENDGAME [1957] each twice.”

When HAPPY DAYS begins, director Rob Melrose says, “Winnie (Julie Fishell) is a woman about 50 years old buried up to her waist in a mound. Her husband Willie (Ray Dooley) lives in a hole behind the mound. In Act One, Winnie goes about her daily routines; and in the course of the day, she hits her husband with a parasol, reads the lettering on her toothbrush, watches her parasol catch on fire, listens to her music box, kisses her handgun, tries to sing and cannot, and in the end … prays.

“In Act Two,” Melrose notes, “Winnie is now buried up to her neck, and Willie is nowhere to be found. Winnie calls for him and keeps herself occupied until he finally shows up. He arrives in a full tuxedo like he is dressed for a wedding or a funeral. He desperately crawls up to Winnie. At first, she is thrilled that he is crawling up to give her a kiss, but later suspects that it might be the handgun he is after. The play ends with the audience torn between which path he is about to go down, the gun or the kiss.”

In addition director Rob Melrose, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for HAPPY DAYS includes scenic designer Michael Locher and composer Cliff Caruthers, who both worked with Melrose on the 2009 Guthrie production of HAPPY DAYS, as well as PlayMakers producing artistic director Joseph Haj, production manager Michael Rolleri, lighting designer Chuck Catotti, costume designer McKay Coble, sound designer/engineer Ryan Gastelum, dramaturg Karen O’Brien, and stage manager Charles K. Bayang.

Director Rob Melrose says, “The set is a low mound with scorched grass. One of our inspirations for our set is the painting ‘Christina’s World’ by Andrew Wyeth.”

He adds, “The lighting is the blistering hot sun and an endless sky beyond…. Willie wears only a boater in Act One and a tux in Act Two with top hat. Winnie wears a red blouse with a low bodice and a hat in Act One and just a hat is Act Two.”

Staging HAPPY DAYS in the intimate confines of the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre presents multiple challenges to director Rob Melrose and his cast and crew.

“First off,” Melrose claims, “it is an incredibly intense role for the actress playing Winnie. There are pages and pages of lines to memorize and just as many detailed movements that often do not logically follow one another. So, just learning the part is something that has wrecked many an actress. Actresses have been known to give up mid-process and quit the play; it can be so exhausting. Then there is the emotional toll. [HAPPY DAYS] is a pretty intense play, and Winnie’s emotions run the gamut. All in all, it is pretty tiring for an actress and pacing the rehearsal process is really important.”

He adds, “A technical challenge is the parasol that catches on fire. It is so hard to achieve that when Beckett last directed it, he suggested cutting it altogether. At the Guthrie, the fire inspectors said we couldn’t do open flame so we had to settle for smoke. I am excited because at PlayMakers, the prop department has been working hard on making a great flaming parasol effect.”

Melrose says, “[Samuel] Beckett was one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century, and his work can be quite challenging. This often makes people intimidated by his plays and worried that they aren’t ‘getting it.’ The nice thing is that Beckett is really being generous with his writing and invites his audiences to take what they want out of the experience. It is almost as if he is creating a particular form of life on the stage, inviting people to look at it the way one might go to the zoo to watch an interesting animal. It is an interesting, engaging experience; and what you take out of it is up to you.

“So,” says Rob Melrose, “my advice for audiences is to relax, sit back, and watch Winnie and Willie. Let the words wash over you, and don’t worry about getting it or not. Hopefully, in the days after the performances, lots of different thoughts and ideas will come into your head; and that is where the experience really starts to pay off. Enjoy!”

Besides HAPPY DAYS, the other shows in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s fourth PRC2 series include: EXIT CUCKOO (NANNY IN MOTHERLAND), written and performed by Lisa Ramirez and directed by Colman Domingo, on Jan. 12-16 and THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, adapted from her 2005 National Book Award-winning memoir by novelist Joan Didion.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents HAPPY DAYS at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8-11 and 2 p.m. Sept. 12 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC 27514.

TICKETS: $10-$35.

BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY (7529) or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.aspx.

SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/performances/event.aspx?id=d7e2e6c4-a49d-457d-92dc-a364f2c255ee.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/.

VENUE: http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/kenan.aspx.

PARKING/DIRECTIONS: http://www.playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo/.

NOTE: There will be a post-show discussion after each performance.

OTHER LINKS:

The Play: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Days_(play) (Wikipedia) and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=4197 (Internet Broadway Database).

The Film: http://www.beckettonfilm.com/plays/happydays/synopsis.html (Beckett on Film) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0263422/ (Internet Movie Database).

The Playwright: http://www.ua.ac.be/main.aspx?c=*SBECKETT (Samuel Beckett Society), http://www.samuel-beckett.net/ (Samuel Beckett On-Line Resources and Links Pages), http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=people&keyword=name&first=Samuel&last=Beckett&middle= (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=8590 (Internet Broadway Database), and (Internet Movie Database).

Rob Melrose: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/artist.aspx?id=67e755c5-856c-43c0-9d0b-24367dfbfee8 (PlayMakers Repertory Company).

Julie Fishell: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/artist.aspx?id=c9da9859-953a-4ed4-b8ee-96a67bab2aad (PlayMakers Repertory Company).

Ray Dooley: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/artist.aspx?id=8af68993-6769-49d2-a611-58e367e5526f (PlayMakers Repertory Company).

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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