BWW Reviews: Nancy Robinette Aces Beckett's HAPPY DAYS at the Atlas Theater
When a local treasure agrees to perform a classic of the modern theatre, Washington audiences should sit up and take notice. When the artist is Nancy Robinette, and the play Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, audiences should line up and buy the tickets, sight unseen.
And here's the good news: even if you bought tickets before reading this review, you're guaranteed a rewarding evening, filled with nuance and touching moments that have been Robinette's hallmark throughout her career. Under the finely-tuned direction of Scena Theatre's Artistic Director, Robert McNamara-a demanding taskmaster, whose results of late have been spectacular-you are in for a fine evening indeed.
OK, so Robinette doesn't move around much-doesn't move around at all, in fact. Buried up to her waist in Act I all she can do is babble away, reach into her bottomless handbag for tchotchkes, brush her teeth, do her nails, her lipstick, that sort of thing. By Act II, she's buried up to her neck (that's progress for you). But it is because of this perpetual, motionless state that we get to enjoy Robinette's nearly flawless delivery of Beckett's finely-etched prose.
By the early 60's when he first produced this play, Beckett had already written a series of radio plays for the BBC; so with Happy Days we see his fascination with the human voice as a theatrical medium; and the dramatic potential of the voice is fully realized in Robinette's performance.
As Winnie, the ultimate frustrated housewife, we see Robinette's character struggle to get through her days largely alone, filling her hours with bland prattle and useless domestic rituals-for the simple reason that although married she is alone, for all intents and purposes. The absurdity of a too-long marriage, the need for anything vaguely resembling human interaction, and her sheer delight at the slightest hint of a grunt from her husband Willie-played here with delightful precision by Stephen Lorne Williams-all add up to a surprisingly lively, amusing and deeply moving evening of theatre. After all, the "Happy Days" of the title are those when Willie grudgingly acknowledges her existence.
Beckett is champion at putting his actors in impossible situations, forcing them to live in trash cans, stuck in huge urns or lost in a wasteland with one bare tree-let for company, etc. Perhaps it was his years in the French Resistance during World War II, constantly on the run from the Nazis (could it be that he's re-enacting his own methods of concealment?), but whatever the motivation for these odd situations Beckett still has an uncanny way of killing time, if for no other reason than to prevent the times from killing him. These bleak tableaux can be off-putting at first but with every play, from Waiting for Godot onward, there is a huge reward if you accept the absurd premise. Something wonderful emerges as you see these characters, much like the rest of us, trapped but determined to push on.
This explains why, as we enter the black-box space at the Atlas center, we see Nancy Robinette, asleep and already buried her up to her waist in sand. Michael Stepowany's monumental, roughly-sculpted dune towers over us as we take our seats ('the impossible heap' indeed), topped by an impossibly blue sky, flecked with a few nimbus clouds. There is none of the usual, soothing lapping of waves; only an alarm clock seems to ring out from nowhere (thanks to Sound Designer Denise R. Rose), marking the days and hours of Winnie's routine. And with costume designer Alisa Mandel dressing Winnie in a fine, black, subtly-sequined evening gown topped by a gaudy fake pearl necklace, the incongruity of it all is complete.
Are we at the beach, or in her living room? Is she taking a holiday, or stuck at home for an eternity? She performs, you decide.
If you've never seen Beckett, or avoided Beckett like the plague because of his reputation, this is the one production you need to see; slowly but surely, Robinette's Winny will win you over and you will, I hope, come to appreciate the monumental achievement of Beckett's work.
Photo: Nancy Robinette as Winnie. Photo by Don Summers, Jr.
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with one Intermission.
Happy Days runs June 14 - July 5 at the Atlas Performing Arts center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the Atlas box office at 202-399-7993 or online at https://atlasarts.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0Si0000003Yq7QEAS .