Fiona Shaw brings Beckett's "Happy Days" to life

January 10, 2008 6:27:52 PM PST
"Another heavenly day," chirps Winnie, the indomitable heroine of Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days," now on display in an extraordinary, not-to-be-missed production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater. "Heroine" is the right word to use to describe this woman of middle age, who, in the first act, is buried up to her waist in a mound of dirt surrounded by what looks like (in designer Tom Pye's desolate setting) a post-apocalyptic slag heap.

There's not much for Winnie to do but go on - and survive she does in Beckett's unsparing look at the human condition. That's what is so special about this National Theatre of Great Britain production, sharply directed by Deborah Warner and starring the amazing Fiona Shaw.

Shaw's Winnie is remarkably human, which means Winnie is full of contradictions. At times, remarkably funny; at others, sad and a bit mean-spirited to Willie, her bumbling helpmate played by a wonderfully unraveling Tim Potter. He is all but silent in the face of her endless chattering and bits of day-to-day business.

The talk may be chatter, but it is exact and demanding talk. In a distinct Irish lilt, Shaw tackles each word with a laser-beam preciseness. Although rooted to one spot, the actress also displays an appealing physicality.

Her Winnie is stationary, but Shaw knows how to use her expressive, strong face and long arms, most notably as she fiddles with her large black bag, out of which pops, in no set order, a tube of toothpaste, a gun and an umbrella.

Winnie is obsessed with the minutiae of daily life. In fact, they become her life, giving her a reason to hang on with more than just recollections of the past.

In Act 2, things get grimmer, but Winnie fiercely soldiers on. By now, she is up to her ears in dirt, only her head visible in the mire. Still, Winnie talks about her daily routine. And it gets even sadder as she wonders what will happen as she runs out of things to do and things to say. Silence, for Winnie, is not golden. It only reinforces the bleakness of her condition.

More than 45 years has passed since "Happy Days" first appeared on stage. The initial production was at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village in 1961 with the great Ruth White as Winnie.

Over the years, the play has grown in stature, with actresses as diverse as Irene Worth and Lea DeLaria clamoring to portray Winnie although the role is not easy to pull off. "Happy Days" needs a performer of uncommon technique and theatricality. Shaw, with a sizable assist from Warner, makes this Beckett masterpiece her own.

The too-brief engagement ends Feb. 2.