"Another heavenly day," declares Winnie, the ordinary/extraordinary heroine of Samuel Beckett's landmark play "Happy Days." This round, sixtyish Englishwoman in her frumpy frock has just been jolted awake by an ear-splitting alarm. Like some incredibly adaptable animal, she has been sleeping upright while buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. Very soon, we realize that Winnie has been rendered permanently immobile by some unidentified force, and yet here she is, going about her morning rituals -- brushing her teeth, applying lipstick, bolting back a bit of whiskey -- and cheerfully prattling on to her mostly invisible husband, Willie.
This tug between the average and the astonishing -- a hallmark of the late great existential playwright's oeuvre -- is summoned up most effectively in the Washington Stage Guild's production of this simultaneously devastating and amusing work. Director Alan Wade, a Beckett scholar whose theatrical credits include a one-man show based on the author's prose, has clearly taken careful heed of the spare and precise stage directions, the repetitions and silences, the poetry and the slapstick.
In the script for "Happy Days," Beckett calls for "Scorch Expanse, Sky, Blazing Light"; hence, set and lighting designer Carl S. Gudenius has flooded the small, barren stage with unpleasant bright light and fashioned a horrid-looking burial mound of wood and muslin that looks like a monstrous, multi-tiered cake. The wonderfully ridiculous props -- Winnie's big black handbag, her parasol, Willie's yellowing, tattered newspaper and tired straw hat -- provide visual stimuli both minimal and meaningful. For us, these are artifacts of a severely wounded civilization. For Winnie and Willie, they serve as shards of the blissfully domestic existence they once led and as absolute raisons d'etre in the hopeless landscape they now inhabit.
Wade has also found himself a winning actress to play the plucky, tragicomic Winnie. Three-time Helen Hayes Award nominee June Hansen, who has appeared in a number of Washington Stage Guild productions, approaches this difficult role with a combination of daffiness and blood-curdling rage. Though she is acting only from the waist up in Act 1, and from the neck up in Act 2 (when Winnie's situation grows graver), Hansen manages to express herself most eloquently by means of her elastic face, alternately tender and piercing gaze, flashing smile and even the tilt of her head. When she stretches a fleshy arm behind her, groping for some sign of Willie's existence, the gesture is at once gawky and gallant. And when feeble-but-mobile Willie -- played to monosyllabic perfection by Pritchard Brown -- places a straw boater on his bleeding balding head and adjusts it rakishly to one side, the effect is equally heartbreaking and laughable.
But it is Hansen's voice that lends Winnie her profundity. The English-born actress possesses that perfect unforced articulation that makes even the reading of a shopping list sound fascinating. Her appreciation of Beckett's stripped-down language, his inimitable mixture of literary quotations and Morse code, is everywhere apparent. "Not a day goes by without an addition to one's knowledge," declares Winnie. Listening to this doughty creature speak and even sing, we learn a great deal about the indomitability of the human spirit.
Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Alan Wade. With June Hansen and Pritchard Brown. At the Washington Stage Guild, Carroll Hall, 924 G St. NW, through Oct. 21.