It is often said that Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece

Happy Days

explores the bleakness of human existence. It certainly does - but it also explores ways of getting on within that bleakness: memory, art, relationships, sentimentality, good old self-deception. It is a strangely timeless play that has been explored by some of the greatest actresses of our time.

In the Quintessence Theatre's honed, sophisticated production - again timeless - E. Ashley Izard, who takes on the central figure of Winnie with an impressive tour-de-force performance, commands. She wrings humor, pathos, and helplessness from her part in a hypnotic performance.

Winnie is an iconic character in 20th-century theater, a protagonist slogging through a magical, desertlike, perhaps postapocalyptic landscape in which she's buried up to her sternum. Her optimism is admirable, as is her encyclopedic knowledge of classics - her struggle to reach quotations in the corners of her brain from Shakespeare ("Fear no more the heat o' the sun") to Browning becomes a theme throughout. These efforts at self-comfort through memory and art display the existential ennui we must all endure alleviated, however fitfully and pointlessly, by the highest accomplishments of art.

The Irish-turned-Parisian playwright and 1969 Nobel Prize winner also peers at feminism, romance, and marriage. Winnie is eternally optimistic about her lot. Her fascination with her black bag of objects keeps her going with ritualistic adherence to habit: brush teeth, comb hair, apply makeup, sip medicinal tonic, and sing a song before bedtime (as announced by an incredibly jarring, surreal morning and nighttime bell). We feel for Winnie because her threadbare, empty round of habits are literally all that she's got. One can choose to be bogged down by our day-to-day habits or embrace them for the simple sake of their reminder that we're alive.

One refrain is "the old style, the sweet old style," Winnie's penchant for nostalgia. Another is Winnie's preoccupation with reading the words on the toothbrush she uses daily": "Guaranteed, genuine, pure . . . what?!" She uses her glasses and a magnifying glass. When she reads that the bristles on her toothbrush are made of "hog's setae," she asks her mostly absent husband, Willie (Gregory Isaac), for a definition - of hog. "A castrated male swine raised for slaughter," he explains with rare verbal expression.

Also explored is sexuality. Winnie is buried above a hole that Willie crawls in and out of, for all the resonance that may have. She keeps begging him to move into her field of vision so she can see him. Marriage dynamics. In Winnie's bag is also a revolver Willie has asked her to keep so as to prevent him from committing suicide.

Near the end, Willie crawls dramatically up the small mountain of crushed rock. As he reaches for the gun, or his wife, she inquires, "Is it a kiss you're after, Willie?!"

THEATER REVIEW

Happy Days

Presented by Quintessence Theatre Group through June 26 at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Ave.

Tickets: $15-$34.

Information: 215-987-4450 or www.quintessencetheatre.org.

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