One of Washington theater’s most able character actors, Nancy Robinette, uses her gift for off-kilter line readings and existential angst of the comedic kind to worthy effect in Samuel Beckett’s 1961 piece “Happy Days.” That the staging and her performance are not quite transcendental doesn’t mean lovers of the avant-garde won’t enjoy the production.
Robinette plays Winnie, a middle-aged woman buried up to her waist and unable to extricate herself from what looks like a sand dune in Scena Theater’s spare staging. Stuck in place, she molders alone, sharing little companionship with Willie (Stephen Lorne Williams), her mostly silent, occasionally monosyllabic, mate.
A loud alarm bell rings, and Winnie wakes and starts talking, trying to be cheerful, always looking on the bright side. “Another heavenly day!” she exclaims, taking in her dune and the harsh sun. Blue sky and a puffy cloud grace an unchanging backdrop that she doesn’t see. She prays briefly, then primps. Out of a large handbag next to her sand trap she pulls a toothbrush, an almost empty toothpaste tube (uh-oh, shopping not possible), a compact, a lipstick and later a revolver, for reassurance.
This is Beckett, so the gun doesn’t go off, and the sand hill never sets Winnie free. In her blather, she thanks providence for its many mercies and mines her memory for literary quotes to pass the time. She tosses her parasol down at Willie, just to make him respond. He’s too rickety to move much and lives in another hole down the far the side of the “heap” to escape the sun. He makes only a rare appearance. “Weary of your hole, dear?” Winnie calls to him. “Not the crawler you were . . . the crawler I gave my heart to . . . ”
This may be theater of the absurd, yet there’s nothing all that obscure about Winnie’s situation — trapped by impending mortality, haunted by opportunities lost and love soured. It’s the manner in which Beckett explores these ideas, combining a kind of blank verse, which comes at things sideways, and visual symbolism that is literal. Every person watching can choose whatever metaphor hits him or her.
As staged by Scena’s artistic director, Robert McNamara, a lifelong Beckett interpreter, this “Happy Days” feels faithful, yet distancing, and not just because of its style. It is the physical distance McNamara creates by placing Robinette and Williams on a dune set so far back from the audience. This prevents a more intense engagement with the play. In the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s large Sprenger Theatre, Robinette’s voice carries easily. But the space, a flexible “black box,” is rather cavernous, and one wishes that all the action had been set nearer the audience, the better to observe Robinette’s highly expressive face, for one thing.
Physical distances aside, Robinette’s embodiment of Winnie feels a little undercooked — technically together, but emotionally still marinating. Expect Robinette to add a pinch more seasoning as she goes along.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Robert McNamara. Scenic design, Michael C. Stepowany; costumes, Alisa Mandel; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Denise R. Rose. Tickets $20-$40. About 1 hour, 40 minutes, with intermission. Presented through July 5 by Scena Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St., NE, Washington. Visit www.scenatheater.org
or call 202-399-7993.