Just prior to the opening of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s regular 2010-11 season September 24, PRC2 opened the first of three works for its new season, Samuel Beckett’s absurdist comedy, Happy Days.

The play is a two-act for two people, Winnie and Willie, played by two of the company’s most seasoned (and beloved) actors, Julie Fishell and Ray Dooley. In a page seemingly taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Winnie is depicted as being stuck — both in time and in a barren mound of earth. Her monologue — which is only broken by occasional and banal comments from her husband, Willie — runs the entire two acts and is concluded only by her husband’s final desperate act. Dressed incongruously in a tuxedo, he struggles to reach her as the lights fall.

The work is part of the playwright’s body of work known as beginning the mid-twentieth-century Theater of the Absurd, which minimalist settings include Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame. Happy Days is the last of these three, written in 1960-61, and it is considered to be the author’s most lighthearted — if that term can ever be applied to the playwright.

Guest director Rob Melrose, who has been a lifelong fan of the playwright, says that the play is highly comedic and that it “encapsulates all that is really important about life: love, happiness, companionship, survival, and appreciating the little things.” This is Melrose’s second direction of the play, having directed it for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2009.

In a scene designed by Michael Locher, Winnie is sunk up to her waist in a mound of dirt covered entirely by dead, dry grass, with a clear blue sky overhead. She is surrounded by several of her own things: a parasol, a hand mirror, a red hat that matches her smock, and a huge black bag that carries her incidentals. One of those incidentals is a gunmetal gray Browning pistol, which she kisses and places handily nearby. The gun belonged to her husband Willie, but she relieved him of it some time ago. Willie, who spends act 1 completely unclad but for a straw sun hat, has no such accoutrements and lives in a hole he has dug behind Winnie’s mound.

This play is really a one-woman play, because Willie’s infrequent responses come only after much urging by his wife and only during the first act. She finds it necessary to chatter incessantly to keep both herself and, ostensibly, Willie occupied in this wasteland. She is constantly trying to recall famous lines from literature but fails miserably, as her memory, like most everything else, tumbles inexorably toward entropy.

Julie Fishell does a supremely colossal job of handling this monster of a role, maintaining a cheerful demeanor throughout and handling every setback, both small and large, with the words, “That’s what I find so wonderful…”  When Willie seems to have disappeared entirely in the beginning of the second act, Winnie placates herself — now completely underground except for her red-hatted head — with all the things she normally does to keep herself occupied until he does arrive: chatting, remembering, singing (or at least making the attempt), and praying.

Beckett is known for commenting on the human condition by making it either painfully funny or terribly depressing, depending on the viewer rather than the text. The wit found in his plays is esoteric and is not funny to everyone; there is a large contingent of viewers of Beckett theater that find no humor in it at all. Happy Days is bright and cheerful to a fault. That is what these viewers will find most depressing. The situation — of both the play and of life — is depressing; but Man’s and, in this case, Woman’s reaction to it is anything but. Julie Fishell gives a stellar performance and a singularly still interpretation of Winnie in PRC2’s production. A warning to those who seek comedy alone: Happy Days is comedy at its darkest, somewhat akin to a woman’s take on Waiting for Godot. Beckett fans will rejoice; some theatergoers may simply scratch their heads; but everyone must agree that PRC’s Happy Days is a tour de force.

The production runs through 9/12. For details, see our calendar.