GLOUCESTER -- In his settings, his stage directions, and his famous battles to control all aspects of all productions of his work, Samuel Beckett imposed just about every possible restriction on directors and actors. So it's all the more miraculous that, within the strict confines of Beckett's ``Happy Days," director Scott Edmiston and actor Nancy E. Carroll have managed to find the greatest possible freedom.
The play buries its central character, Winnie, in a mound of earth -- to her waist in the first act, to her neck in the second. Until the end we see only her and a few glimpses of her husband and sole companion, Willie, who grunts and crawls behind the mound. As if this weren't acting challenge enough, Winnie speaks nearly nonstop in a dizzying melange of chitchat, prayer, reminiscence, and profundity -- all while carrying out a precise sequence of tiny actions with toothbrush, nail file, parasol, and revolver that Beckett choreographs in detail.
On paper, like so many of Beckett's plays, this can feel maddening. It's only when you see it, and see it done well, that its senselessness accretes into a startling, ineffable sense. Beckett resisted saying what his work was ``about," and the work itself doesn't tell you. Still, somehow, you end up knowing. It's about -- well, to quote Winnie herself, ``life I suppose, there is no other word."
In Edmiston's sensitive production for Gloucester Stage, Carroll doesn't cheapen that line by overemphasizing it. Instead she fully inhabits her heartbreakingly chipper, hopelessly hopeful character. Carroll's Winnie begins with all the relentless cheer of a hostess at a cocktail party that's not going too well, an impression deepened by the prom-dress-pink bodice that tops her mounded skirt of dirt. Blond and perky, she's insisting on maintaining her optimism about the ``happy day" that she predicts this will turn out to have been, despite all evidence to the contrary.
All this is specified in the text, but Carroll also brings much rich shading of her own. From the first broadly Bostonian vowels of her opening prayer, ``For Jesus Christ sake Amen," through the brilliantly appropriate Irish accents she employs in a digressive anecdote, to the increasingly desperate and yet less colorful vocal shadings in the more panicky second act, Carroll gives Winnie a distinctive, various, and utterly individual voice.
This is essential. As absurd as her situation is, we must believe, always, that Winnie is a real person, really in it. We don't know how she got there, why the light glares so fiercely, or who rings the bell that governs her waking and sleeping now that there is no more night; we just know that she's there, and we're there with her.
Will McGarrahan is there, too, in a flawless embodiment of the enigmatic Willie. Edmiston paces their conversation, if you can call it that, with exacting rhythm, and he helps them find the great humor as well as the great pain in Beckett's strange, strangely familiar world. With music that sounds now like gnats, now like heavenly choirs, and with constantly but subtly shifting light, he also reaches that most elusive of goals: to carve meaning out of Beckett's mysteries, and still let the mystery be.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.