The Haven Project, at the Back Door Theatre, 4321 SE Hawthorne, 872-9635, Thurs 7 pm, Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm, $15
T he last full-length play Samuel Beckett published in his life, Happy Days tells the hilarious, terrifying, and deeply sad story of a woman, Winnie (Gretchen Corbett), struggling to retain a facade of good cheer while trapped in a suffocatingly mundane life. Beckett addresses her plight with a metaphorical device at once mind-numbing and exhilarating in its defiance of theatrical convention: he buries her from the waist up in a mound of dirt.
The idea of a two-and-a-half hour play featuring a woman who not only can't move, but is surrounded by nothing but dirt, does not sound appealing on paper. And yet, from the moment Winnie's upper half rises from its pre-play slumber, we are riveted. Her daily ritual reflects the obsessive method of lunacy. She scrutinizes household objects from her bag, polishes them, and arranges them in a studied pattern around her hole. She talks to herself and to what we can only assume to be her life partner, the groaning, unseen Willie (Tim True), who crawls around behind the mound, out of sight, and replies exhaustively, usually monosyllabically. Why he doesn't depart from the mound and/or dig Winnie out is frequently reflected on and never answered, a classic Beckettean situation. The playwright loved to give his characters an awareness of their entrapments, but keep from them an ability or desire to free themselves. Their inadequacy is as frustrating to us as it is to them.
The Haven Project understands this, and deals with it well. As Winnie, Corbett reveals her deep well of repression, anxiety, and hopelessness slowly and carefully. Her Winnie is quiet and introspective, moving timidly from forced happiness, to sadness, to utter despair, to abject fear. Her understated mannerisms and gentle voice are maintained to maximum effect, and when her restraint finally breaks down and panic sets in, the resulting screams are utterly chilling.
As Willie, the ubiquitous True has little to do, but he makes the most of his one moment facing the audience, staggering out from behind the mound in a fantastically touching scene that stands out for sheer oddity in the midst of a play that has just spent the previous two hours setting new standards for oddness. JUSTIN SANDERS