It’s difficult to imagine modern drama without Waiting for Godot, a play as radical for its time (the early 1950s) in style, form, and content as were Our Town and The Threepenny Opera in their own. If this essential work is not the greatest play of the 20th century and if it isn’t, I’m not sure what is it’s certainly the most written about; Samuel Beckett is second only to the Bible in official bibliography.

And yet, Godot doesn’t seem to be performed all that often, outside of prisons and in the occasional starry “revival.” The play itself is hardly difficult: two tramps wait for the elusive, eponymous savior. They blarney, argue, engage in vaudeville, part, reunite. They encounter a man of means and his slave, and are diverted. They are left alone. A boy messenger tells them Godot will not come today. They wait. They are revisited by the bourgeois gentleman and his factotum the same, yet different. The boy returns with the same message. They despair. They wait.

What is difficult is the meaning. When Alan Schneider, the play’s first American director, asked Beckett for one, the playwright replied: “If I knew, I would have said so in the play.” (Of course, there’s always the possibility that this dour Irish sprite was being disingenuous.) David Henderson, the director of the current Burning Coal Theatre Company production (which runs through April 18 in the Kennedy Theatre in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, NC) notes, quite correctly, that “You take away from the play whatever […] you bring to it.”

That the unseen Godot is not “God” is fairly obvious, despite the proper if never used Beckettian pronunciation (“God-O”). Is Godot, as Vladimir, the more intellectual of the tramps suggests, “Hope deferred”? A meaning for existence beyond the corporeal? A validation of our own, essentially pointless, lives? Prisoners, for whom the play is a perennial favorite, probably “get” Beckett as well or better than anyone. Godot is whatever you most desire, and most fear not finding. We are born, we die, and we spend the time between in waiting. (“Astride of a grave and of a difficult birth,” says Vladimir at the climax. “Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps.”) The play holds no comforting song to take out with you into the night.

Yet Godot is far from fearsome. It is often playful, frequently hilarious something we might call an intellectual vaudeville. Beckett’s Joycean wit bubbles up throughout as his tramps, Vladimir (“Didi”) and Estragon (“Gogo”) engage themselves and each other in bursts of wordplay, sarcasm, and slapstick. Their visitors, the bourgeois Pozzo and the hapless Lucky, form a duo of a different sort, but even they can be imagined as comedic “types.” Roger Blin, who directed the original Paris production, thought the right casting to be “Chaplin for Vladimir… Keaton for Estragon.” Kenneth Tynan felt Laurel and Hardy to be “the ideal casting of these roles.” (Although L&H might be better imagined as Pozzo and Lucky.)

The first American production starred Bert Lahr, seemingly out of his depth, but the one cast member who probably best understood it. (Of the initial Florida premiere Lahr famously said, “Playing [it] in Miami was like doing Giselle at Roseland.”) The climactic image of Estragon is classic burlesque: a man with his pants down around his ankles. A comic totem and a picture of the human at his most movingly vulnerable.

Henderson says his “commanding image” for this African-American edition of Godot has been “the Mississippi delta blues” and Robert Johnson’s mythic encounter with the Devil. I saw little evidence of it, aside from the Johnson recordings heard during the intervals and a blues rendition by Vladimir of the “dog came into the kitchen” song at the top of the second act. Nor do I think it matters much; doing more to integrate concept would be to damage the play itself.

That said, and even accounting for the diffident performance of one of its leads, Henderson’s is far and away the finest production of Waiting for Godot I’ve ever seen. His direction is imaginative, swift, and profound without undue gravitas. There are occasional missteps: Vladimir directs rather too much of his longer speeches upstage, making him difficult for most of the audience to hear; the removal of Lucky’s hat does not reveal the text’s “long white hair”; and the interpolation of a helpful line to the urinary-impaired Didi (“Back of the lobby, on the left”) is both unnecessary and theatrically wrong-headed. But by and large Henderson proves nearly as deft a director as he is an actor. That’s about the highest praise I can give.

Where this production really scores, however, is in the casting of its Estragon and Pozzo. Paul Garrett is, like Lahr before him, a Gogo to cherish. Although his physique makes a hash of the tramps’ hanging discussion, Garrett’s performance is otherwise utterly right. From his delicate, Oliver Hardy-like gestures to his aplomb with a tragicomic line (“What do we do, now that we are happy?”), from his growing frustration in the bowler hat routine to his exceptionally graceful pratfalling, Garrett is Estragon to the life. His eyes sparkle with sly wit one moment, go dead blank the next. It’s the perfect meeting of actor and role. You can imagine this man doing almost anything, and doing it superbly well.

Scarcely less staggering is Vaughn Michael’s Pozzo. With his sneer of a laugh, cruel intonations, and dangerously ingratiating bonhomie, Michael who bears a trace of Andre de Shields in his physique, countenance, and movement conveys a sense of power over others as unquestioned noblesse oblige. (The significance of one black man owning another is not lost on him.) Never more alive than when attention is focused upon him, Michael is equally at home with the anguish of a master who needs his slave as much, if not more, than the servant needs him. When delivering an oration, he slows his conversation, coating each, slightly sinister phrase (“Pozzo” is the Italian for “enemy”) with an actor’s anxiety to the reaction of his audience.

Thaddeaus Edwards is, I think, an ideal Lucky. Permanently stooped with the weight of his baggage and perpetually waiting to pick it up again once it’s been momentarily set down, Edwards performs Lucky’s difficult, garbled Act I peroration as the last desperate gasp of a schizophrenic academician. He makes cunning use of four voices, each separate and distinct and wedded to a specific portion of the speech: professorial tone here, sermonizing Baptist preacher there. It’s a marvelously varied means of performing one of the longest speeches in modern theatre.

Forte Brookings’ Boy is perfectly acceptable, if over-age. It is with the Vladimir of Lamont Reed, however, that the production falters most egregiously. There is no lightness to his playing, and he seems equally ill equipped for the play’s darker aspects. Vladimir’s anguished “I can’t go on! What have I said?” is not merely the most moving line in Godot but one of the most agonizing in all of 20th century theater; its implications should rend the heart. Yet Reed speaks it as though ticking off an inventory.

Robert John Andrusko’s scenery consists, quite properly, of a spindly tree upstage center with the suggestion of infinite roots in the marbled cloth that flows from it. The lighting design by Christopher Popowich shimmers with a slow twilight, a rapid nightfall, and a slightly unsettling pale blue moon. Jennifer Baker’s costumes are at their most inventive with Pozzo: black gloves, a feather in his bowler, and topped off by a velvet-lapelled riding coat. The effect is, somehow, both elegant and seedy. Like the characters themselves.

Second Opinion: April 3rd review by Raleigh, NC News & Observer correspondent Adam Sobsey: and April 7th review by Durham, NC Independent Weekly chief contributor Byron Woods:

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Waiting for Godot Thursday-Saturday, April 8-10 and 15-17, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 11 and 18, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theatre in the rear of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel). 919/388-0066 or Burning Coal Theatre Company: Internet Broadway Database: The Beckett International Foundation: The Samuel Beckett Endpage (The Samuel Beckett Society): [inactive 10/04]. BBC Biography of Beckett: [inactive 8/04]. On Samuel Beckett (from Pegasos Author’s Calendar):