Unhappy Days

Samuel Beckett's Winnie is one of literature's most compelling female characters. Aging, lonely and buried to her waist in the scorched, suffocating earth, she somehow manages to carry on "in the old way," with a smile on her face and with enough grace to be grateful for the smallest gift. "Another heavenly day," she says, opening her eyes to a new day of infinitely blazing sun, then praying. What follows is a wondrous monologue about time, death, language, and the end of things.

On the surface, Winnie is the ultimate optimist: She puts on her glasses to read and, when she still can't see, simply says, "Ah well, seen enough already." But buried deep inside her smiling exterior is a woman capable of asking the ultimate existential question: What is one to do all day long, day after day? "One says all one can," she sighs, "and no truth in it anywhere." This is Beckett at his most brilliant -- a cool, bright surface glazed across a raw, dark world that's grieving for what never was and never will be.

No wonder some of the 20th century's most capable actresses, including Irene Worth and Jessica Tandy, have taken on the formidable role at the center of Beckett's Happy Days. For not only is Winnie capable of enormous philosophical musings and great emotional depth, she is also one of the few truly great characters written for a mature actress.

Yet, there's something essential missing in Infernal Bridegroom's production of this modern classic, even though it is aesthetically gorgeous, and even though Tamarie Cooper, who plays Winnie, is one of Houston's most compelling young actresses. Cooper is simply too young, too lovely, and too vigorous of spirit to make Winnie's problems come off as crucial and urgent as they are.

In fact, Cooper seems to be standing outside the character, rather than inhabiting her. Winnie is driven by desperation and foolish hope. The world as she knows it is ending, and she clings to her old methods of dealing with life, including a sunny disposition and false ideas about her husband. We watch these ways fail over the course of the play, and she becomes darker and more desperate as time marches on. Because Cooper's Winnie starts off with a weary sadness -- her bottom lip trembles at the smallest thing, and she sighs endlessly -- she has nowhere to go. The dramatic tension in Winnie's desperate attempt to cling to illusion is lost. Thus the play, which is quite long, slows to a snails pace at times. Still, Beckett's script is extraordinary, and Cooper does create many fine moments.

Director Jason Nodler and his crew have put together a stunning set. The back wall of the proscenium stage curves into a "u," as though the world were caving in on Winnie. Dead St. Augustine grass is piled across the floor, and a red velvet curtain frames the scene in elegant folds.

No one else in town is brave enough to attempt this difficult and important play. We should be thankful, as Winnie would say, to have the opportunity to see a production of it.