The Performance by Claire Thomas

The Performance follows three women – Margot, a professor; Ivy, a philanthropist; and Summer, a theater usher – as they watch Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. There’s a wildfire ravaging in the nearby hills, so this performance would have been a reprieve to most in attendance, sheltering them from the heat and the destruction for a few hours. Yet, the minds of these three women begin to meander the moment the play starts because they see some parallels between the scenes and their personal lives, intensifying their worries. In Happy Days, the protagonist, Winnie, is waist-deep in the earth during the first act. By the time the second act begins, she is buried up to her neck and even more trapped, even though she remains hopeful holding on to her treasured happy memories, all the while performing mundane tasks and seemingly ignoring her present predicament. Is this a survival mechanism, or is it madness – we never realize, although parts of the play resonate with all three women.

To me, the similarities between Margot and Winnie were much more clear. Margot is in her seventies and facing forced retirement from her university. Also, her husband, who is suffering from dementia, is becoming violent towards her. He hadn’t been abusive to her before he got dementia, so Margot doesn’t know how to deal with his violent outbursts, or how to talk to others about what she’s going through. Each day, he is becoming less and less like the man she fell in love with, and she is struggling, unable to decide if her husband is already dead or still alive. This makes it impossible for Margot to leave, so although she isn’t disregarding the plight she’s in like Winnie, she is sinking deeper and deeper into a situation that’s not going to get better. 

Summer’s story-line, my favorite, is one that alludes to the climate crisis and our general ambivalence to it. This performance is put on during a wildfire, in which Summer’s girlfriend’s parents might be trapped. Since the play is being directed by an “eco-feminist,” environmental problems loom large in this adaptation – for instance, Winnie is buried in a mound of waste. Yet to me, all these symbols, and the timing of the play, only amplified our nonchalance – it seemed to suggest that we, like Winnie, would rather turn a blind eye to what’s happening right in our faces and go about our lives.

In contrast to these two, Ivy’s story-line seemed a tad out of place to me. Sure, there are some minor similarities between her story and Winnie’s, and Ivy is triggered by them, but I didn’t see how they are related in an overarching way. Perhaps I should revisit this after watching Happy Days.

3 stars.

Note: Many thanks to Riverhead Books for sending me a review copy of The Performance.

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