If you're a theater nerd, you might already know the most famous aspect of Samuel Beckett's two-person play Happy Days, which is currently being performed at the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda. This is the play with the woman buried up to her neck in dirt -- not to be confused with Endgame, which features two legless characters who live in trash cans -- and it's getting a rare and riveting staging here in the East Bay. Part dark-humored feminist allegory, part existentialist experiment, it takes balls to attack this play, both as director and performer.
The role of the absurdly optimistic Winnie in Happy Days is said to be one of the most challenging for any actress in the history of theater, because it requires her to be at once cheerful, entertaining, pathetic and endearing all while being trapped in a pile of dirt -- up to her waist in the first act, and up to her neck in the second. In the CalShakes production, the role is played confidently by Patty Gallagher, a professor of theater at UC Santa Cruz and a star of CalShakes' upcoming Midsummer Night's Dream. Ms. Gallagher stepped in as a last-minute replacement after the announced star Marsha Mason had to bow out due personal reasons. While Ms. Gallagher's voice may not be quite as powerful or as nuanced as the role demands, having to carry an entire ninety minutes with very little movement, she brings great humor and technique to the character and has no trouble keeping the audience's attention. Her co-star Dan Hiatt, who plays the mostly monosyllabic (but mobile) husband Willie, is terrific during his brief few minutes on stage.