Happy Days

It is not difficult to know what Beckett wanted his characters, Winnie and Willie (Tom Fitzpatrick), to do onstage. Stage directions are meticulously notated throughout his written text. The task for Maleczech (who plays the first act in waist-high water and is nearly submerged in the second) and Fitzpatrick (who is barely seen and heard at all) is to bring to life the almost nonstop stream-of-consciousness musings of Winnie, punctuated intermittently by the terse, reluctant responses from her mate, Willie.

With:
Cast: Ruth Maleczech (Winnie), Tom Fitzpatrick (Willie). The late Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett personified the horrifically hilarious task of surviving life on Earth in the eternally optimistic Winnie (Ruth Maleczech), the central character of his 1961 work, "Happy Days," who spends the entire play buried in sand. Under the meticulously centered guidance of director Robert Woodruff, four-time Obie Award-winner Maleczech transcends Beckett's words, creating an indelible portrait of a woman who conquers life as she is being crushed by it.

It is not difficult to know what Beckett wanted his characters, Winnie and Willie (Tom Fitzpatrick), to do onstage. Stage directions are meticulously notated throughout his written text. The task for Maleczech (who plays the first act in waist-high water and is nearly submerged in the second) and Fitzpatrick (who is barely seen and heard at all) is to bring to life the almost nonstop stream-of-consciousness musings of Winnie, punctuated intermittently by the terse, reluctant responses from her mate, Willie.

Woodruff’s staging keeps the actors perfectly in synch with the emotional ebb and flow of Beckett’s words. It is to his credit that, despite the sometimes arbitrary nature of the text, there is never a false word or action in this work.

Winnie’s dilemma is powerfully realized by set designer Douglas Stein’s mountainous pile of sand, which exudes the aura of a barren wasteland. Though she is permanently wedged in this pile and is awakened by the multidecibel sound of a dentist-drill-like buzzer, Winnie still greets each morning with an optimistic “another beautiful day” and proceeds to diligently brush her teeth.

Maleczech guides the audience through every minute detail of Winnie’s life and thoughts, perfectly capturing the hopeless cheerfulness of a woman who knows no other way to keep her grasp on reality. She turns an insignificant accomplishment into a moment of pure triumph when Winnie finally manages to read the fine print on her tooth brush.

There is music-like pacing to Maleczech’s dialogue as Winnie reflects on the details of her situation while trying her best to stimulate some overt activity out of Willie (who chooses to live on the other side of the mound, out of Winnie’s direct sight). Maleczech’s control of the rhythm of Beckett’s words is so fluid, she creates hilarious comedy bits out of otherwise mundane activities, such as putting her overstuffed handbag aside and stating, “Mustn’t overdo the bag, Winnie.”

Tom Fitzpatrick is a perfect counterpoint to Maleczech. His Willie is as arid and nonsupportive as the sand that surrounds Winnie. He personifies the everyman who survives by retreating into his personal hovel, avoiding the mate he can’t abide but doesn’t have the courage to leave.

There is one telling moment when Fitzpatrick’s Willie beautifully sings a harmony to the waltz Winnie plays on her music box, displaying an aesthetic level far above the crackly voiced Winnie.

Happy Days

Production: Happy Days (Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla; 398 seats; $ 36 top) La Jolla Playhouse presents a play in two acts (no intermission) by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Robert Woodruff.

Crew: Set, Douglas Stein; costume, Jack Taggert; lighting , John Philip Martin; sound, Michael McClung. Opened, reviewed Aug. 11, 1996; runs through Sept. 8. Running time: 90 minutes.

With: Cast: Ruth Maleczech (Winnie), Tom Fitzpatrick (Willie). The late Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett personified the horrifically hilarious task of surviving life on Earth in the eternally optimistic Winnie (Ruth Maleczech), the central character of his 1961 work, "Happy Days," who spends the entire play buried in sand. Under the meticulously centered guidance of director Robert Woodruff, four-time Obie Award-winner Maleczech transcends Beckett's words, creating an indelible portrait of a woman who conquers life as she is being crushed by it.

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