What is that woman doing, buried in sand up to her waist in a blazing sun? How can she be sleeping? And what is that piercing buzzer that wakes her up?
Known to us only as Winnie, she is, in fact, nameless--the next-to-last human being on Earth. The fire has stormed through here. Nothing grows. Nothing lives. Except for this strange, strangely immaculate woman, with her bag and her toothbrush and her parasol . . . and the unseen someone she calls Willie. A husband perhaps. Or a lover. Someone intimately known , anyway, like an old shoe.
These are the givens of Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days," which opened Thursday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. It is Beckett's quirky, quizzical elegy to humanity's passing from the planet, its recesses filled with fears camouflaged as humor--at once whimsical, odd and celebratory.
Ah, yes. "Another heavenly day," exclaims Winnie, putting the best possible face on things. She has her routines--anything habitual , in "the old style," will do to stave off the terror: waking up and putting on your glasses to stare at the desolation; brushing your teeth; reading labels; thinking good thoughts; looking into a mirror.
"There is so little one can do," Winnie says, not at all pessimistically. "One does it all--all one can."
The voice is steady. Ordinary. It has the programmed cheerfulness of a woman planning dinner. This parceling out of words is reassurance. Like the daily tasks.
Winnie is talking to Willie, who remains mostly unseen. Sometimes he grunts, sometimes he even answers. Mostly, he remains silent. Now and then, we glimpse the back of his head. Or the tips of his fingers. But his great virtue is as a presence. A someone. A there. All Winnie needs. All anyone needs.
"This is a happy day," Winnie exults when Willie manages a sentence or when something equally exceptional occurs, like the possibility of a tiny bug crawling about in the sand. "This will have been another happy day . . . after all," she repeats, underscoring her desire to believe it.
Barbara Bain plays Winnie at LATC and, at the moment, she has learned the notes but not the music. The phrasings and the modulations elude her. The performance is a bit rushed, the transitions too abrupt.
Bain is missing one more crucial mental leap to distinguish between her methodology as an actress and Winnie's calculated one as a character. It is extremely subtle stuff that places huge demands on a performer buried up to her waist in the first act--and up to her neck in the second.
How do you make the transition from one act to the other? Carefully, and with the kind of psychological shift that Bain has not yet found.
Under Alan Mandell's direction, Bain has absorbed the words but not yet synthesized them into body language--the kind of visceral understanding that speaks louder than language, projecting itself through the pores, tone, pace.
The performance is palpably there, but its wholeness is just out of range, just over the dark edge of that mound, and it may well be grasped as the play's run and the performer's reach lengthen. It takes great courage to slow down here and let the meaning carry the words, rather than the reverse. Madeleine Renaud, who created the role in French, played it with what can almost be characterized as languor.
Martin Beck is fine as the inarticulate Willie, and Timian Alsaker's landscape of death, illuminated by Todd Jared's harsh, blinding light, its silence interrupted by Jon Gottlieb's jarring buzzer, is exactly right for the play. All it needs now is some fleshing out in the center.
Note that at all Saturday and Sunday matinees and Sunday evening performances, Winnie will be played by Angela Paton.
'HAPPY DAYS' Samuel Beckett's 1961 play, presented at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 3, 514 S. Spring St. Artistic producing director Bill Bushnell. Director Alan Mandell. Assistant to the director Ellen Krout. Set and costumes Timian Alsaker. Lights Todd Jared. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Stage manager Joan Toggenburger. Production assistant Geoffrey Miller. Cast Barbara Bain, Martin Beck. Alternate Angela Paton. Tickets $10-$22. Performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday performances at 2 p.m. (Nov. 2 and 9 only) and 8 p.m. (Nov. 16, 23, 30 only). Ends Nov. 30. (213) 627-5599.