Little by little, Mad Cow Theatre's Stage Right is becoming a haven for post-apocalyptic minimalism. Christened in February 2004 with a memorably eerie production of Caryl Churchill's Far Away, the space now hosts Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, a willfully discomfiting two-act character study that alternately rewards and tests one's patience for sparse disaster narrative.
Perhaps it's rash to pinpoint the 1961 play's plucky heroine, Winnie (Peg O'Keef), as the survivor of a global catastrophe: We're never told what calamitous series of events has led her to her current state, which has her imbedded in a mound of dirt while chattering absurdly away about the good things in life. Even her references to simple concepts like death and the passage of day into night, she admits, are part of speaking in "the old style." Maybe the entire world is suffering the fallout of whatever upheaval has imprisoned Winnie in earth. Then again, she may be weathering a more personal meltdown that explains her growing detachment from reality. A running gag in Act One has her wondering aloud what a "hog" is or was.
Literally stuck, Winnie is nonetheless determined to find simple comfort in her daily routine: awaken, brush teeth, apply lipstick, don hat, sing song, go back to sleep. And there's always the prospect of a grunting acknowledgment from her husband, Willie (Alan Sincic), a peripheral yet more mobile figure who scampers in and out of a hole located directly behind Winnie, occasionally reading aloud from an ominously yellowed newspaper.
Beckett wants us to see the wretchedness in Winnie's acceptance of a nightmarish situation whose best attributes are embodied in her mantra, "No better, no worse, no change, no pain." No theater company should attempt a piece this conceptually static without an actress as nimble as O'Keef, whose tour de force performance shows what haunting work can be wrung out of a comically croaking vocal delivery and a repertoire of stylized facial expressions and gestures. Cartoonish on the surface the red feather that protrudes from the back of her hat lends her the aspect of an avant-garde Woody Woodpecker O'Keef's Winnie has a sophisticated mania dancing at the edges of her supremely expressive features. It's a raw, ruthlessly questioning portrayal, one you'll be revisiting in your mind's eye for days afterward.
Director Alan Bruun's lighting design shows off O'Keef's skills to maximum effect, but he's struck out with the "dirt mound" that's been constructed according to his blueprint. A poorly finished heap of canvas shoved into a cramped corner of Stage Right, it conveys the false impression that Winnie is speaking from behind the lines in World War I, considerably undercutting our sense that the character's losing battle is with nature itself. Such flaws become more distracting in the long play's second act, which pushes its already obscure discourse into near-inaccessibility. Winnie's mind is really starting to go now, and it's only O'Keef's talent for injecting harrowing introspection into pregnant pauses that prevents our interest from evaporating right along with it.
Beckett's script plays out before it plays through; by intermission, he's already made his point that optimism can go too far. When it entails a determination to gloss over all adversity with robotic homilies, it becomes a ticket to extinction.