Winnie is trapped, buried, embedded up to her waist in a mound of dirt and scorched grass; in Act II, up to her neck.
Joseph Chaikin is trapped in an aphasia, a word/memory blockage, that since his stroke in 1984 has, through immense struggle over the years, lifted bit by bit, word by word, to where he can now converse — searching, straining, reaching, shaping — in sentences, or considerable parts of sentences, that are only vestigially garbled.
What better man to direct Happy Days, generally conceded to be one of the most difficult-to-stage of all the plays of Samuel Beckett; also one so essentially depressing (in spite of — and because of — garrulous Winnie's chatterbox resistance to terminal fact) that the author of Waiting for Godot wryly referred to Happy Days as "another misery"?
Joe Chaikin, in directing the Happy Days that's at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Oct. 27, has thought and thought and unearthed a vein of humor in it that, he feels, goes deeper than all Winnie's shenanigans with her purse, her toothbrush, her toothpaste, her mirror, her spectacles, her handkerchief, her parasol, her memories, and oh yes, the revolver she digs out of the depths of the bag — the pistol her wormlike, inarticulate husband Willie is grasping for (or is he?) at the end of the play.
It was after Chaikin had acted in Beckett's Endgame in 1969 and, a decade later, had directed it at the Manhattan Theatre Club that Sam Beckett wrote Joe Chaikin a letter — "and then I went and met him, two times, in Paris." At 20, the future founder of the Open Theatre had seen and forever after been haunted by the Bert Lahr/E.G. Marshall/Kurt Kaznar/Alvin Epstein Waiting for Godot of 1956. He has since directed Godot twice himself. "I love Beckett," says the now 67-year-old Chaikin. "I adore him. He was very kind. But a really unhappy person. Major unhappiness." For all that, Chaikin and actress Joyce Aaron and dramaturg Bill Coco have worked hard the past two-and-a-half years on the Happy Days that now, complete with a tinge of happiness, comes to the same historic Cherry Lane that housed that drama's world premiere under Alan Schneider's direction in 1961. Ruth White and John C. Betcher were the Winnie and Willie of that one. Joyce Aaron and Ron Faber are the she and he of this one.
It is Bill Coco who has intervened — served as transmission belt, and much more — for director Chaikin over the years since 1984. "Joe has a storehouse of relationships with artists he worked with before the stroke," says Coco, "so there's a whole vocabulary of relationships. He has insights which he will concentrate into a few words, and I will try to expand on that. Then Joe comments on my expansion, and it becomes a conversation." Imagination untrapped. Happy day.
—By Jerry Tallmer