My newfound appreciation for the work of Samuel Beckett dates from 7:45 p.m., Sept. 8, after Julie Fishell’s character Winnie had been speaking for just a few minutes in PRC2’s new production of Beckett’s Happy Days in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art. My every previous encounter with Beckett on page or stage had resulted in boredom, irritation and somnolence, as my youthful, impatient romantic soul rebelled against the bleak Beckettian waiting, insufficiently relieved by slaps of dark humor. Tired and wiser now, the everlasting ongoingness of nothing, presented so precisely, makes sense at last.
What makes humans any different from other animals in their earthy dens and burrows? Here is a woman who makes clear the one or two essential differences. Buried up to her waist in a gigantic mound of earth—immobilized, de-sexed (though not de-gendered), capable of only the most limited actions and occupied with fruitless daily rituals filling time “between the bell for waking and the bell for sleeping,” Fishell’s Winnie makes us laugh, cry and, ultimately, admire her courageous, addled endurance and insistence on self-hood.
For Winnie, and for the rest of us, language is the essential coin of humanity, but as she tells us several times, talking to oneself is not enough. As much as she longs to see her hidden husband Willie (living in a burrow on the backside of Winnie’s mound), she needs even more to hear him—in order to know that he has heard her. The play is a two-act monologue for Winnie (with a few but necessary sentences and minimal appearances by Willie, intensely played here by fellow PlayMaker Ray Dooley), a tour de force of language structured like music. It is a huge, difficult role for the actor, demanding physically, emotionally and vocally.
Julie Fishell’s interpretation is tremendously moving. Directed with restraint and clarity by Rob Melrose (co-founder and artistic director of The Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco), her timing, her vocal expressiveness and her gestures are all superb. In the second act, Winnie has sunk into earth up to her neck: She is naught but a talking head in a cunning hat atop the mound, and must communicate all with voice and facial expression. Her eyesight is fading; memory mangles the “immortal lines” of poetry—but still, “classics help get you through the day.” Stripped of all agency but thought and word, yet she maintains the inexplicable faith that “this will be another happy day.”
This amazing season-opener for what promises to be a powerful year at Playmakers runs only through Sept. 12.