By John Lyle Belden
Decades before the popular “This is Fine” meme showed a cartoon dog smiling through a burning hellscape, famed Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett penned the play, “Happy Days.” If pressed for a quick explanation of this unusual two-person show (completely unrelated to the 1970s TV sitcom), I would say it is as if the unfortunate but contented pooch had two acts to elaborate on how “fine” things are, and were.
Long considered by commenters an excellent example of Theatre of the Absurd, “Happy Days” is presented by Clerical Error Productions this weekend (through Feb. 26) at the District Theatre.
Clerical Error founder Kate Duffy is Winnie, just your typical Irish woman who is buried at least to her waist in a burning desert. A bell sounds to awaken her, and another will signal the end of the day. She awakens with a beaming smile and declaration that this is a happy day – as time passes she will, with optimism that borders on delusion, reiterate that the day is indeed happy. She has her routine. She has her black bag. She has her toothbrush. She has her hat, parasol, tonic, lipstick, Brownie the gun, and her music box. She has her song, but best not to sing it too soon.
She also has her husband. Just over the dirt mound is Willie, played with surly patience by David Mosedale. Where she is endlessly talkative, he is a man of few words, or sometimes none at all. Unable to stand, Willie makes his way in and out of his own tunnel. “What a curse, mobility,” Winnie chides him.
One gets a sense that for this couple, and perhaps the world in general, there is little future, so for our lady there is always the past, with frequent reflections on “the old style.” There is the recent memory of their last visitors, and a long-ago story of a girl and a doll.
Among actors, this play is held in the same esteem as Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and for the same reason: with limited physical action, this becomes the supreme test of a thespian, to engage and hold an audience for two acts with just endless talking. Duffy seems to relish the challenge, and comes through with a performance that draws you in. Directed by Jon Lindley, she accepts and goes with the absurdities in such a way that you come to feel that no matter how odd things get, this is just the way they are. Then, when the next day dawns and things have shifted, you can’t help but feel for her, wish her to have the former weirdness we had grown accustomed to in the first act.
While observing, it is only natural for us in the audience to try to make sense of it. Beckett’s cleverly vague composition gives room for endless interpretations and metaphors. Hints and clues abound, but resolution? We are left stuck, like Winnie. Perhaps it’s best to just find an answer we are happy with.
For fans of Mr. Beckett, Ms. Duffy, or the curious open to it, this is a fascinating experience. Wendy and I found it quite entertaining – though our tastes do run to the weird, like dogs in hats in ironic webcomics.
The District is at 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indy. For information and tickets, see ClericalErrorProductions.com or IndyDistrictTheatre.org.