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Charlotte Rae Plays Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’

October 11, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Charlotte Rae doesn’t turn Samuel Beckett’s ″Happy Days″ into a joke, but in the revival which opened Wednesday at off-Broadway’s CSC Theater, she does make the play much funnier than usual.

Rae, best known for her work on the television series ″The Facts of Life,″ has a face with seemingly unlimited expressions. When it brightens in expectation and then falls in chagrin or disappointment, it reminds a viewer of the quick, unstudied responses of childhood. One laughs in remembered recognition.

″Happy Days,″ in which the leading character Winnie is buried to her waist in a big clay mound in Act 1 and up to her neck in Act 2, can be seen to mean different things at different viewings.

Winnie has a bell for morning wakeup and a bell for night sleep. In between, she isn’t striving for major accomplishment. She reaches into a large purse, puts on pink lipstick, squeezes a flat toothpaste tube and brushes her teeth with a ragged brush. The woman proclaims that little things such as an occasional grunt from her old husband, played by Bill Moor, make it a happy day.

In this production, a viewer is reminded of a life in retirement. There’s a repetition of the daily rituals that promote health and well-being and pass time. There’s also a determined effort to keep oneself cheerful.

Actresses often play Winnie with gallantry. Rae doesn’t stress that; she plays the situation as humorous. And she lets Winnie appreciate some of the humor. Remembering her first kiss, she laughs, then ostentatiously pulls back from the laugh, her mouth turning down.

With her clown face, Rae’s expressions allow the audience to see even more of the humor of the whole situation than Winnie does.

″Happy Days,″ directed here by Carey Perloff, can become one-dimensional. Rae does not let that happen. She has extraordinary range as an actress and extraordinary dynamic range, making her voice shrill to tender to harsh, frivolously high to wisely deep. ″Mustn’t complain. So much to be thankful for,″ she says briskly, curling her voice into a faintly false upbeat tone.

She ends Act 1 on a serious note, her eyes amazed and shocked when she has told herself, ″Pray your prayer, Winnie,″ and finds herself unable to pray.

In Act 2, moving her mouth and eyes but not swiveling her neck, Winnie’s smile is now a frozen grin. She tells a story and frightens herself with it. She shows feelings she didn’t exhibit in Act 1 and becomes sarcastic, frustrated, cynical and rueful. More importantly, it takes a greater effort to cheer herself up.

Despite the laughs that Rae is able to get out of ″Happy Days,″ Beckett’s view of the human condition doesn’t make a happy play.

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