Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative Is Staging Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” in an Old Victoria’s Secret

The production stars an astonishing Diane Kondrat as Winnie, the beleaguered wife who insists on the promise of “another happy day.”

Happy Days (Northwest Classical)

The three-decade rise of online shopping surged during the pandemic and put many shopping centers that were once all-ages social hubs out of business. A walk through the ones that remain—dim and eerily vacant—brings existential longing and dread, making Lloyd Center a fitting host venue for Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative’s production of Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Happy Days.

In the mall’s vacant Victoria Secret, 50 stools and folding chairs face a red curtain that parts and reveals a small circular stage. Buried waist-deep in a mound of earth, Winnie (Diane Kondrat) begins the day with a prayer. She then takes from a black plastic bag with great care her daily items—a toothbrush, a handheld mirror, a hat and a revolver named “Brownie.”

Winnie speaks to her husband Willie (Chris Porter), but he rarely responds. Throughout the play, the middle-aged woman revisits old memories, fixates on rituals and the objects around her, and repeats, “This is going to be another happy day.” Willie, his wife’s foil, lies behind the mound and occasionally props the back of his head on the mass and becomes visible to the audience (Winnie is gleeful with gratitude when Willie utters a word to her).

It only gets worse from there. The second act reveals Winnie neck-deep in the earth. She laments her inability to move her arms and suggests that Willie has left her, and yet continues to talk to him. Despair starts to creep in, but still she remarks that it is a “happy day.” Beckett illustrates, through the contradiction between Winnie’s relentless optimism and the barren earth in which she’s trapped, the futility of human existence in a meaningless world.

Throughout the play, translucent plastic tarp covers old fitting rooms and creates a backdrop for the stage. This is not mere decoration—in this production, images are extensions of emotions. At times, the yellow overhead light dims and orange-gold or purple-blue lights filter through the tarp to highlight Winnie’s different emotions.

From the first act, Kondrat does not let restricted mobility hold back her performance. She employs the full range of each artistic medium available to her—voice, countenance, upper body—and its opportunities for physical comedy. The actor’s masterful command of facial expressions and well-timed silences allows her to shift seamlessly between emotions of gratitude, sorrow, ecstasy and shock. And in a further demonstration of craft, Kondrat shifts her entire performance to her face in the second act and manages to maintain the character’s established presence onstage.

The production runs 90 minutes (the play can run up to two hours). Still, such a static performance piece struggles to maintain audience attention for more than an hour. Beckett, best known for his earlier absurdist play Waiting for Godot, could have delivered the same messages, perhaps with greater impact, in half the length of the script.

The play’s quirky location also affected the audience’s ability to stay immersed in the story. At the Saturday performance I attended, a disco-themed event on the mall’s ice-skating rink started during the second act (at one point, we could hear “Dancing Queen” blaring into the crafty theater space).

Still, director Patrick Walsh has delivered a striking production. Toward the end of the play, siren-red light floods the stage and darkens gradually as Walsh twists Beckett’s original ending. Whereas Beckett left room for ambiguity, the director introduces action, in addition to replacing a song that Winnie sings with “What a Wonderful World” (a classic written six years after Happy Days was first performed), constructing an ending all the more absurd and haunting.

As ridiculous as a woman buried in a dirt mound insisting on the happiness of the day may be, Beckett’s play seems to starkly reflect reality today, 60 years after its premiere. The significance of our actions shrinks as the enormity of the world’s problems grows; climate change-related disasters of record impact and polled shifts toward global right-wing populism are met with social media activism and wellness microtrends as supposed forms of rebellion.

Are we not manifesting a happy day?

SEE IT: Happy Days plays at the old Victoria’s Secret at Lloyd Center, 970 Lloyd Center F116, $10.

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