Some people can’t help but look on the bright side—even if they find themselves buried waist-deep in a pile of earth and garbage. That’s the state in which we find Winnie, the tragic heroine in Samuel Beckett’s brutal thought experiment of a play, Happy Days, currently being staged by CulturalDC at Flashpoint’s Mead Theater Lab.
Winnie (Karen Lange) doesn’t have much to keep her occupied these days. She’s got a bag of objects—a toothbrush, a comb, a handgun—most of which she uses to perform her daily acts of hygiene. She also has a parasol to (somewhat ineffectively) shield her from the beating sun. Her husband, Willie (Christian Sullivan, effective in his small role), is on the premises, but isn’t doing her much good—he hides from view, creeps in and out of a hole, and largely grunts and reads the paper, not quite connecting with his desperately optimistic wife. The promise of sleep doesn’t provide much comfort: It can only be achieved once the day comes to an end; otherwise an unerring alarm forces Winnie awake, making her endure each day to the fullest. Through it all, she clings to her memories, the smallest of pleasures each day brings, and the false sense of control her routine gives her. Unfortunately, she only can fool herself for so long.
Those looking for answers to basic questions—what got them here? Is it a form of punishment? Why don’t they seem to need to eat? What happened to everyone else?—won’t find them in producer/director Jess Jung’s production of Beckett’s demanding work. In a sense, Happy Days is almost a mild form of torture for Beckett’s audience, as we find ourselves having to endure the same inanity, boredom, and malaise Winnie goes through. The viewers do have one form of distraction—taking in Joe C. Klug’s simple but well-crafted set, including Winnie’s mound of garbage and objects (many of them slightly outdated pieces of technology), with an abstract painting and hanging tiles serving as backdrop.
In some ways, act two is more satisfying. Winnie is forced, essentially, to get real as the stakes become higher. She’s now buried up to her chin, and her illusions and memories of life in “the old style” are being put to the test. Watching the capable Lange begin to crack under the pressure of her unyielding circumstances is an intriguing, if sadistic, prospect. Even the purest of her miserable life’s limited pleasures can’t keep her days happy forever.
Happy Days is at Flashpoint through February 23. Running time is about 100 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($15) are available via CulturalDC’s website.