Dianne Wiest rules the stage in ‘Happy Days’ at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Winnie is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.
And her shoulders are just about the only part of her that isn’t trapped in a mountain of earth.
She is being buried alive.
Here stands the heroine — though you can only see her from the waist up — of Samuel Beckett’s existential play “Happy Days.”
This is widely considered the foremost female role in all of modern drama. Academy Award-winning actress Dianne Wiest handles it with awe-inspiring artistry.
She’s the star of a Yale Repertory Theatre production that just opened in Fort Greene, at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
It is directed by James Bundy, who is both Yale School of Drama’s dean and Yale Repertory Theatre’s artistic director.
When staged at Yale last year, the production was acclaimed.
Here in Brooklyn, Wiest is mesmerizing in the Dublin-born Nobel Prize-winner’s funny and deeply moving work about bravery, endurance and the cruel futility of human existence.
She is a magnificent presence onstage, vibrant and vulnerable, a bouyant soul pinned down but not vanquished by the imprisoning earth.
A torrent of talk to stave off sorrow
Winnie’s only companion in the sun-scorched landscape of this play is her husband, Willie. This nearly wordless role is played with verve by Jarlath Conroy, an Irish-born film, TV and stage actor.
Willie is a mostly mute old gent with some loathsome habits and a penchant for reading the newspaper while wearing nothing but a straw hat with a filthy handkerchief tucked under it.
For long stretches of “Happy Days,” Willie is hidden from sight — ours and Winnie’s. Occasionally, she wonders if he has left her or died. Otherwise, she assumes he is sleeping or ignoring her.
She spends her time talking to him anyway, explaining that “just to know that in theory you can hear me even though in fact you don’t is all I need.”
For Winnie, cheerfulness is an act of willpower. In Act I, she does a valiant job of being upbeat, though “sorrow keeps breaking in,” as she says.
Wiest skillfully takes the audience through emotional arcs from ebullience to the brink of grief, over and over again. She makes us laugh by struggling to read the fine print on a toothbrush handle and silences us by warning, “Words fail, there are times when even they fail.”
Wiest leads us along a winding road of recollections that include snippets of lines by Shakespeare, Milton and Thomas Gray, the 18th-century poet who coined the phrase, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” She remembers a long-ago day when Willie admired her golden hair.
In Act I, Wiest deftly intersperses her torrent of talk with fussy little rituals that help time pass more quickly in the wasteland, like opening a parasol and unpacking a black bag full of personal effects. That’s where the toothbrush came from.
Another item in the bag is a revolver she calls “Brownie.” She kisses it the first time she pulls it out of the bag.
“Oh I suppose it’s a comfort to know you’re there, but I’m tired of you,” she tells the gun later, all the while caressing it affectionately.
In Act II, Winnie’s situation is dire. The earth has almost entirely swallowed her up. Only her head remains above the ground. The gun lies beside her, unreachable.
Her thoughts are fragmentary, and often veer towards distress. She says she doesn’t pray anymore.
In this act, Wiest has only her facial expressions and voice to deploy as acting tools. That’s all she needs to break our hearts.
Iconic role, acclaimed actresses
“Happy Days” was first performed in 1961 at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village. Over the years, acclaimed actresses who have played Winnie include Peggy Ashcroft, Irene Worth, Jessica Tandy, Estelle Parsons and Fiona Shaw.
Wiest — who told the New Yorker last year the role is “the Hamlet for actresses” — has won two Oscars and two Emmy awards. Her considerable stage experience includes a role in the 1976 American premiere of Beckett’s play “Footfalls” under the direction of Alan Schneider, an important interpreter of the playwright’s works.
Wiest is currently appearing in the CBS TV series “Life in Pieces.”
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Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” starring Dianne Wiest, runs in a strictly limited engagement through May 28 at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
The playhouse is at 262 Ashland Place in Fort Greene.
For tickets go to tfana.org or call 866-811-4111.
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