WELLESLEY — Winnie talks and talks and talks in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,’’ clinging to fragments of memory and hope while her world quite literally closes in on her.
As embodied by Brooke Adams in a Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production at Babson College’s Carling-Sorenson Theater, Winnie is a heartbreakingly poignant figure. She is also deeply funny. It’s a difficult balancing act that Adams brings off beautifully in one of the best performances I’ve seen all year. You’ve only got till Sunday to catch it yourself.
Her costar in this 1961 play — directed by Andrei Belgrader with an utterly sure grasp of the compassion within Beckett’s absurdist vision — is Tony Shalhoub, to whom Adams has long been married. With a rag on his head and a battered straw boater atop that, Shalhoub plays Willie, Winnie’s scrofulous, nearly feral husband, and he makes a vivid impression. When has this remarkable actor ever not done so?
But the man who made Adrian Monk the fictional face of obsessive-compulsive disorder has few lines in “Happy Days’’ — though to hear Shalhoub croak the words “Castrated male swine’’ is almost worth the price of admission.
So what we have is essentially a two-act monologue by Adams, and she is just extraordinary. Her Winnie exemplifies glass-half-full resiliency under increasingly dire circumstances. In Act One, Winnie is buried in a scorched mound of earth up to her waist (the superb set is by Takeshi Kata), with only a parasol for (temporary) protection from the unending light. In the more somber Act Two, she is buried up to her neck.
A brilliant notion by Beckett, this visual representation of the human predicament, and it gains power as time passes and we are forced to contemplate the isolation of the (mostly) solitary woman onstage, a wide blue sky behind her promising a freedom she can no longer touch.
Yet if Winnie is to a large extent immobilized, Adams’s features are anything but. The actress delivers a master class in how to use the face and voice to build character and mood and even to convey a wispy sense of back story, of the past that preceded Winnie’s strange and unsettling present.
Attired in a white bodice, her hair dyed blond, Adams endows Winnie with a radiant smile that amounts to a personal statement — heck, maybe even a philosophy — to be wielded in the face of life’s travails. When that smile fades, when Winnie wrestles with the fear that it all adds up to nothing, you may get a lump in your throat.
It’s a disciplined yet freewheeling performance by Adams, who sticks out her tongue, contorts her face, jiggles her bare arms, and even, in one especially impressive moment, makes her eyes roll around in their sockets. She captures the elliptical yet hypnotic rhythms of Beckett’s language as Winnie chatters nonstop while moving through the daily routine that is her bulwark against desperation: brushing her teeth (for a hilariously long time), polishing her glasses, applying lipstick, and, not so incidentally, removing a shiny gun from her ever-present bag and kissing it.
Winnie traverses the emotional spectrum, from giddy delight at the sight of an ant, to fretful anxiety about whether Willie has gotten stuck in his tunnel again, to a kind of fathomless sorrow.
Adams lends a conversational naturalness to Winnie’s largely unanswered questions to Willie, from trivial to touching (“Was I lovable once, Willie? Was I ever lovable?’’), and to quintessentially Beckettian passages like this: “Ah yes, so little to say, so little to do, and the fear so great, certain days, of finding oneself . . . left, with hours still to run, before the bell for sleep, and nothing more to say, nothing more to do, that the days go by, quite by, the bell goes, and little or nothing said, little or nothing done.’’
The final image of “Happy Days’’ is a haunting one. But I’ll always remember Winnie hoisting that parasol and wearing that brave smile.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.