Brooke Adams was living proof that an actor can have a diverse, sophisticated and challenging career and not know Samuel Beckett's plays from a hole in the ground.
Now, almost 60 years after making her debut as a child actor at a Michigan theater run by her father, Adams finds herself up to her neck in Beckett as the star of "Happy Days." The austere Nobel laureate's 1961 drama requires an actress to spend the better part of two hours talking almost incessantly while planted in a hole in the ground atop a godforsaken mound of dirt.
Joining Adams at the Theatre@Boston Court in Pasadena is her husband, Tony Shalhoub. He's Willie, an uncommunicative husband who's barely there — nearby, but always lurking outside his poor, potted wife's field of vision. Adams' task as Winnie is to make her struggles seem real as she tries to keep anguish and despair at bay and affirm, in spite of everything, that "this is a happy day."
Beckett's other roles for women confine them to urns, a trash can, a rocking chair and a platform suspended above the stage, where the audience can see nothing but the actress' disembodied mouth. "Happy Days" is by the far the longest. Adams, 65, said she didn't quite know what she was getting into when she accepted the part, having never seen nor read anything by Beckett.
"I was too stupid to know better," she joked.
She wasn't alone. The Irish literary hero's novels and plays are not for everybody, dispensing as they do with logical, realistic storytelling while paring the human condition to discomfiting essences of loneliness, futility and decay.
Beckett can be wildly funny, but he's never reassuring, and there's a belief that his plays are best left to performers who have a special affinity and commitment needed to tackle "Waiting for Godot," "Endgame," "Krapp's Last Tape" or "Happy Days," not to mention some of his even stranger short plays.
Adams was fine with being among the uninitiated. When she got her first invitation to star in "Happy Days" several years ago, from director Andrei Belgrader, she casually turned him down. Belgrader, who teaches at USC, had been Shalhoub's teacher at the Yale School of Drama. Their connection had continued through the early 1980s at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., including a 1982 production of "Waiting for Godot" and a second go at "Godot" in New York in 1998.
When Belgrader first had suggested "Happy Days," Adams recalled, "I kind of tried to read it a few times but just kind of got bored or fell asleep or whatever." The director did not press the issue.
But she changed her mind about a year and a half ago when Steven Maler, artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in Wellesley, Mass., also asked her to star in "Happy Days."
If two directors could see a Winnie in her, Adams reasoned, they probably were right. She said she took the role without further deliberation and soon was wrapped up in the most arduous regimen of brute memorization she'd ever faced.
Shalhoub's Willie speaks 47 words in Act 1, along with assorted grunts, wheezes and other noises indicating his decrepitude. He adds one further syllable at the end of the play. The rest is Winnie, talking, talking and talking to keep silence and hysteria at bay.
"It wasn't until I started having to learn it because I'd agreed to do it that I fell in love with it," Adams said recently from her Los Angeles home, with Shalhoub joining the conversation. "I do think this is a good role for me."
L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty agreed, saying that "the unforced neighborliness of [Adams'] performance" highlights a "richly inhabited production, suffused with the tender solace of human connection in the existential void…. Winnie's predicament may be preposterous, but there's nothing contrived about Adams' flesh and blood portrayal. This is in every sense a deeply rooted performance."
Shalhoub, who'll turn 61 on Oct. 9, agrees there's something to the notion that Beckett requires special expertise and insight, at least from the director.
"There's a level of trust there" with Belgrader, he said. "I wouldn't attempt a production of Beckett with just anyone. It's very delicate material."
All that memorization aside, Adams said, playing Winnie did not mean having to master new skills or approaches, and she felt no pressure to wrap the character in some special aura befitting a symbol for the human condition.
"I think you approach it the same way you approach anything," she said. "She's not trying to be everywoman, she's just being herself. We never really talked about what the symbols were. We certainly talked about the emotional context of this or that moment."
Winnie and Willie finally face each other at the end, amid much ambiguity. But not for Adams. "My decision [about that moment] is that he's come to me and that he loves me, and this is a happy ending."
She became a movie star in the late 1970s with leading roles in "Days of Heaven" opposite Richard Gere and Sam Shepard and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" with Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum.
Adams and Shalhoub met in 1990 as members of the Broadway cast of Wendy Wasserstein's play "The Heidi Chronicles." They married two years later and have two daughters who are in their 20s. The couple's performances together have included playing a brother and a sister in David Mamet's "The Old Neighborhood" and a beleaguered opera company manager and the woman who chairs the company's board in Ken Ludwig's farce "Lend Me a Tenor."
Adams also guest-starred in a few episodes of "Monk," the TV series in which Shalhoub starred for eight seasons from 2002 to 2009 as a detective whose obsessive-compulsive disorder didn't stop him from solving murders.
The couple say that the most important purchase they've made with the substantial proceeds from "Monk" has been their artistic freedom.
"It gives us more choices, to do things we want to do instead of things we have to do," Shalhoub said.
"The biggest thing about having money is being able to say 'no' to a lot of money," if the opportunity would have meant taking an uninvolving part, Adams said.
Last year she starred as William Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, in the Boston premiere of "The Last Will," a drama about the Bard's dying days by another of Shalhoub's mentors, director and critic Robert Brustein. Adams also is working with her older sister, Lynne Adams, who acted in soap operas before she became a playwright, on a do-it-yourself series for the Internet. "It's a comedy about death, a kind of post-menopausal 'Girls,' where my sister thinks she's dying" and the medical profession gets humorously sent up, Adams said.
Shalhoub, who earned a Tony Award nomination last spring playing the comic playwright Moss Hart in "Act One," will miss the final week of "Happy Days" in Pasadena because he's going to be filming several episodes of "Nurse Jackie," the Showtime series starring Edie Falco. Understudy Marc Cardiff will step in opposite Adams. Also on Shalhoub's agenda, starting in February, is a part in the off-Broadway premiere of "The Mystery of Love and Sex" by Bathsheba Doran, for New York's Lincoln Center Theater.
Adams says she'd like to continue performing "Happy Days" elsewhere — "New York would be lovely" — but she has no wish to take on other roles in Beckett plays.
"I appreciate it," she said. "But I don't feel like this is my man."