Happy Days

HappyDaysBrookeAdamsThis afternoon, escaping for a few hours from the 104 degree temperatures of Pasadena, California, I had a life affirming experience in the theatre that reminded me why it has such a profound importance in my life.

In the Theatre at Boston Court, I watched this afternoon as Brooke Adams played Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” with her husband, Tony Shalhoub as Willie, in a beautiful production directed by Andrei Belgrader.

First, a disclaimer. I have a personal and historic connection with this play.  Back in high school, at the age of  seventeen or eighteen, Bob Edgar, my teacher and my theatre mentor, encouraged me to do the role of Winnie. Fellow student and friend,  Will Schwalbe, played Willie; he was sixteen or seventeen.

We  learned all 60 plus pages of lines, which was not easy, and we rehearsed the play and performed it in Memorial Hall,  a 500 seat auditorium. Who came? Can’t remember. Who decided this would be a good idea? Bob or I?  Don’t remember. How long did we rehearse? Not a clue. What was the nature of our conversation about the play when Will and I had no relevant life experience? How did we discuss the sexual innuendo in the play while knowing nothing about it? What were we all thinking?!

I remember learning by failing – how weak and reedy my voice was, what it took  to sustain what was basically a  monologue while buried up to my waist or neck in a mound of dirt. It took vocal variety, which I did not yet have, but strove to acquire in the four weeks of the rehearsals.  Laughable now. It took physical endurance and extreme mental agility to find connections where there didn’t seem  any connecting the text from the end of one beat to the beginning of the next. I remember the pride of being able to learn the lines and the fear of not being able to remember them when I needed to. I remember the joy of taking on a project for which I was monumentally ill-suited. The warm feeling that my teacher, a smart, witty, and well-read adult, had enough faith in my abilities to try something so that we could have “a positive learning outcome.” Hell, it was like winning the educational lottery.

Flash forward to Los Angeles, 36 years later. I sat in the theatre, next to my husband, felt the usual frisson when the house lights faded before the play began, listened to the sounds of someone getting into the beautifully designed and painted mound. (Takeshi Kata did the set.) Lights up, (thank you Tom Ontiveros!) , and there she was, Winnie, in all her glory. Brooke Adams seemed illuminated from within. Her 150-watt smile and can-do attitude was inspiring. What made the play so moving was  simple. She made it plausible that even though buried to her waist in dirt, she would survive and happily so. The simple daily objects she pulled from her bag were talismans of her optimism. Willie was still there, within range of her voice; talking to someone who occasionally responded brought her joy.

And though I can’t remember what “Happy Days” meant to me as a seventeen or eighteen-year-old,  today, the play was about aging. Beckett’s  portrayal of a powerful woman freeing herself from  prison of a mound of dirt with just her mind and her love was moving and funny and familiar. We take for granted our bodies when we are young, and our worlds become more closely circumscribed as our anatomy ages and fails. And in spite of that, our humanity affords us the ability to greet each day generously and with love and joy just as Winnie does.

I thought  today about our niece who lost her husband of 44 years a week ago and  in a week’s time. I thought about how Winnie would be able to go on without Willie. I thought about how someday I will have to go on without my darling husband. And on stage, we saw that terror and uncertainty and fear in Winnie’s eyes.  And we saw her recover again and again.

Ah yes, if only I could bear to be alone, I mean prattle away with not a soul to hear.
Not that I flatter myself you hear much, no Willie, God forbid.
Days perhaps when you hear nothing. But days too when you answer.
So that I may say at all times (even when you do not answer and perhaps hear
nothing) something of this is being heard. I am not merely talking to myself.
That is, in the wilderness. Something I could never bear to do – for any length of time.
That is what enables me to go on, go on talking that is.
Whereas, if you were to die – or go away and leave me, then what would I do, what
could I do all day long?
Simply gaze before me with compressed lips.
Or a brief… gale of laughter, should I happen to see the old joke again.

 Winnie, “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett

Winnie is a survivor. And while we are on this mound we call earth, we love our stuff for the comfort it brings us, and we love the other inhabitants of the mound. And if the mound and its inhabitants change, we can still survive and find  a way to express our love and joy.

Go see “Happy Days” at the Theatre at Boston Court

Get A Room – We’re Working Here!

Last night my husband and I attended a play at a local theatre. We had a lovely dinner before hand at Jones Cafe – Italian, and we were in a particularly receptive mood to see the show.

I am one of the LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards voters. The membership guidelines are strict about not reviewing the plays on social media so I will forego commenting on the play beyond saying that you should go see “In A Dark, Dark House.”

The house was small, and the Matrix Theatre’s  seating area is broad and shallow;  the approximately 30 audience members were evenly arranged around the center of the house, in the first several rows.

Just before the play began, a family of four walked in: Dad,  probably in his early sixties, two daughters in their late twenties, and the second wife, or girlfriend of Dad. I  listened as they discussed where  to sit. Dad wanted to be in the front row. The daughters suggested  that seats further in the rear of the theatre would give them all a better perspective on the action. In hindsight, I wish their suggestion had been taken. One of them seemed to be in the know; I heard her say “We should sit house left because more of the action takes place stage right.”  But Dad was  firm in his position, so they all plopped down immediately in front of us, Dad’s  lady friend just to my left.

Their conversation was light and banal; they discussed  a book that one of the daughters had been reading at home. When Dad denied having the book, she cited specifically where in his bedroom bookshelf it was, and that it had  a red cover. “I have been reading from it lately,”  she said almost petulant. (You never believe me implicit in her tone. )

I pegged the woman as Dad’s girlfriend, because she said  “How well you know where it is!” seeming to imply that the daughter was inappropriately  foraging for reading material in her father’s bedroom.

I didn’t know what the play was about,  but as it unfolded, I became aware that there was a completely separate show directly in front of us. The woman  couldn’t keep her hands off of Dad. First she slung her arm around his neck, cupping his chin in her right hand and pulling his head conspiratorially toward her lips, she whispered into his ear. Now, the play had begun, the actors were working right in front of us, with a lot of the action indeed taking place on the stage right side of the stage in front of our section.

The front row is smack up against the stage, and Dad and his girlfriend were as well lit as the actors on the stage. She ran her well manicured hands from the nape of his neck up through his hair to his forehead. What was she doing? Looking for Nits?  And now she  whispered again, stroking his back methodically, in long languorous swaths from his shoulder to his belt line. He was sitting forward; I couldn’t tell if the material of the play was making him uncomfortable, or if it was her extremely inappropriate stroking. Geez.

I looked to my right to see if Jimmie was as aware of their activity as I was,  but he was inscrutable – focussed intently on the two actors on stage.

Later, he told me that he was ready to lean forward and tap them on their shoulder to say “You are very distracting. It’s difficult to watch the play with all that you are doing.” I would have been mortified if he had done that, but it really was incredible how active these folks were.

The wonderful monologue from Aaron Posner’s “Stupid Fucking Bird,” now playing at the Theatre At Boston Court in Pasadena, which we saw last week came to mind. Early in that play, as the cast gathered to rehearse a play (very meta), one of the actors broke the fourth wall with an hysterical monologue about the fact that ( forgive my paraphrase)  “We can see you out there, you know. We can see you thumbing through your program to see if Arye Gross (a cast member) has ever done anything at The Taper, etc.” It was  a wonderful moment.  I wished we could, just for the moment, cross-pollinate these two plays so that that actor could be given the opportunity to address Dad and his girlfriend at the theatre where we sat.

But we don’t always get what we want.