“It will happen to you.”
That’s what Joan Didion tells us right up front in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the one-woman play based on her memoir of the same name. She’s talking about death. Not your death. The death of those you love.
“I’m telling you what you need to know,” she says. “That’s why I’m here.”
Death isn’t something danced around in Didion’s play (being presented through March 7 as part of the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s “Going Solo” festival of one-character pieces). Death is front and center, infusing nearly every line of the show.
Here, death doesn’t open the door to a heavenly reward, it doesn’t make its victims noble, and it doesn’t
empower the ones it abandons. It doesn’t cause music to swell.
And it happens suddenly.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” concerns the sudden death of Didion’s husband—which occurred while the family was still in turmoil from the inexplicable illness of her only child, an adult daughter who died within the same year.
It is, of course, impossible to imagine such two-fold grief. For some who have suffered their own losses, it will be impossible to imagine wanting to sit through a play about such a story. The pain that generated the creation of the book and play can’t help but mix with the pain of the memories it evokes in the audience. I doubt if anyone will be able to watch it without thinking about the love ones they’ve lost—and the process it took to continue with their lives.
It took me not only to my own losses, but also to other narratives of grief. For me, those include James Agee’s “A Death in the Family,” which I reread every few years for its remarkable insight, honest poetry and multiple perspectives. And William Wharton’s lesser-known but remarkably gutsy “Ever After: A Father’s True Story,” in which he gives not only his own perspective on the death of his daughter and her family, but also attempts to assume her persona and write as her in the first person. Like I said, gutsy.
And, of course, there’s that final, aching scene in “Our Town.” Only in Thornton Wilder’s play, we get death primarily from the point of view of the dead, not the survivor.
For survivor Joan Didion (here played by Fontaine Syer, from the Indiana University theater department faculty), the process involved trying to think magically—to believe that one’s thoughts can change the physical world. If Didion doesn’t clear the closet of her husband’s clothes, then he can’t be dead. Part of the power of the piece is seeing such denial come from such a seemingly rational woman.
Like a trapeze artist, a solo performer is often applauded just for getting to the end without a major slip. Syer does more than that and is particularly affecting when chronicling unpleasant, very specific details. I’m guessing her cold-ish portrayal is more like the real Didion than Vanessa Redgrave’s approach in the Broadway production (which I didn’t see). Still, there’s a virtuosity missing here that might have helped the play over its rougher spots. Elsewhere, the play has been performed without intermission, and I think that would have helped the piece build toward its not surprising conclusion.
Didion doesn’t do a particularly effective job of painting multidimensional pictures of the unseen characters. I wanted to know more about how this privileged family operated. And more about her daughter’s husband, who barely registers in Didion’s narrative. Is there jealousy in grief? Was the daughter a hostile patient? Had Didion’s husband been ill before?
For a while, I wondered if this were part of the design—perhaps the payoff would come from the realization that she didn’t really know her husband and daughter as well as she thought. But that doesn’t prove to be the case: The play just isn’t interested in painting a clear picture of anyone but Didion. And, even then, jumps in time repeatedly reminded us that Didion is telling about something that happened, not something that is happening.
Perhaps, though, it would have been even more painful to experience it with her, rather than filtered by that not-so-magical-year’s time.•
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