Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

For my first production as director at the Nevada Conservatory Theatre, I staged Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which ran September 11–17 in the Black Box Theatre in the 2023-2024 season at the NCT and later moved to the Vegas Theatre Company theatre in downtown Las Vegas. This was a tour de force for the lead playing Winnie, my colleague Kymberly Luke Mellen, as we explored in rehearsal and performance the post-apocalyptic world portrayed by the playwright in a setting that hinted at 1950s Las Vegas. Notable were the stunning combination of Dana Moran Williams’s imaginative set and lighting design by Jordyn Cozart, and the intermission video put together by Brooks Mellen.

You can download the NCT Evening Program and the “Know Before You Go” guide, as well as the Vegas Theatre Company Happy Days Program.

Here’s what I said in my Director’s Note:

Inhabiting the two sides of the same low mound of earth, Winnie and Willie are an odd couple in a strange place: in Beckett’s minimalist Happy Days a “blazing light” never goes down and – without nights – the alternation of waking and sleep is strictly timed by a bell that “rings piercingly” to demand compliance. Winnie brushes her teeth but never really eats anything. Even more strangely, part of her body is embedded deep into the ground. Although her husband enjoys a little additional freedom of movement, neither of them seems able to leave the place after all.

Another oddity of their situation is the behavior of objects: when Winnie shatters her mirror on a rock and throws it away behind the mound, she knows it will be back intact in her bag the next time she wakes up. The same resilience apparently applies to her face and teeth, which temporarily calms her anxiety. And yet, significant adjustments do take place over time: just like the frog of the famous apologue, who doesn’t realize when the lukewarm water grows too hot to survive, Winnie is oblivious to the subtle changes leading to a degradation of her condition over time.

In this production, the passage of time between the acts is visualized during intermission through a collection of commercials from the 1950s onwards that offer purchasing suggestions as well as model family relationships, including how a perfect housewife should behave. And Winnie’s bag with her “resuscitating” objects becomes a metaphor for something gone wrong with consumerism tied to the American Dream: the belief that anything can be easily discarded and substituted, in blissful disregard of the environment and the people inhabiting it. Winnie’s infinitely productive bag thus operates here like a contemporary Amazon-like shop: the intact mirror is just the newly-delivered item, while the one previously broken contributes to an ever-swelling pile of trash. Ultimately, I see these layers of trash as the reason why the earth appears to swallow Winnie’s body, dehumanizing it to look like one of the objects around her.

At the time of Beckett’s writing, between 1960 and 1961, the inhospitable environment that engulfs the couple – with its implacable light and heat, scorched grass, and uncertainty about the future – could be viewed as a reflection of Cold War tensions over the dangers of nuclear war. This aspect reminded me of Las Vegas’s own past: starting in 1951 and over the next twelve years, the southern Nevada desert – just sixty-five miles from downtown – was the theatre of 120 nuclear bomb tests in the only permanent nuclear proving facility on U.S. soil. Yet, even today, the perils of environmental abuse are all around us, leading to desertification and climate conditions similar to those of Winnie and Willie. At the same time as we identify with and support Winnie and her dreams imbued with unrelenting optimism, we become aware of the dangers of a lack of ecological responsibility.

Photo: Shahab Zargari (c) 2023