Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking is a reflective look at the most difficult time in her life. As a world-class writer, Didion resorts to her craft to help clarify her own thoughts as she came to grips with devastating loss. “This will happen to you,” she intones to the audience. Obviously, the specifics will be different, the who, how, and when, but she invokes the universal spirit of grief in her text and thus her tale represents and encompasses all.
Didion was barely dealing with the death of her husband, renowned writer John Gregory Dunne, when her daughter, her only child, lapsed into a coma and after episodic lapses of health, she too, died shortly thereafter. The play won all kinds of acclaim during its Broadway run with Vanessa Redgrave at the helm, and this production is carefully staged and co-directed by Serge Seiden and Joy Zinoman, with the remarkable Helen Hedman in the title role, so it couldn’t get a better set-up. Still, the heartbreaking story tends to provoke more of a reserved chill rather than an emotionally heated response.
From the moment when John collapsed on the living room floor, Didion catalogued each detail of the ultimate final journey-the moments before the ambulance arrived, the quirks of the EMT’s doing their everyday job, the convoluted nonsensical healthcare system that blocks the most logical progressive steps to wellness. A meticulous researcher, Joan has compiled all the facts and recites them as part of the journey. It’s her way of processing the myriad events that turn one’s life upside down when you cross into a new reality and try desperately to hold on lest you be “swept into the vortex.”
In the persona of Didion, Helen Hedman relates the constant and steady details in the present tense with a sense of everyday realism. “I did this, or did that, then this happened,” she intones. The “magical thinking” element represents truly bizarre ideas that fleetingly come to mind from out of nowhere, that she realizes make no sense, even while she’s having them. “I need to keep his shoes because he will need them when he comes back, although he’s dead,” she recalls thinking. These moments of lunacy wrapped in clear lucidity are most effective in the production. We’ve all had such uncontrollably irrational thoughts that we know make no sense, but they still come. Maybe they originate from the reptilian brain stage of human evolution to help assure survival via denial or something. Whatever the reason, they’re there, and Didion depicts the moments as “magical.”
The grief she feels is so real it is palpable. Still, the piece is not a maudlin or manipulating escapade into tear-jerking territory. It’s too analytical for that and might even tip over too far into that realm. Perhaps when Vanessa Redgrave performed it, she was able to infuse passion into the dispassionate accounts of what happened when, and Didion’s rational observations while trying to make sense of it all.
Portions of the text remain in the essay style that resulted in a memoir that won the National Book Award and was nominated for the Pulitzer, instead of the more fluid ebb and flow of theater. Hedman’s slight frame, concentrated movements and cool delivery don’t quite engage with all the text, which can admittedly be off-putting and distant in recounting the clinical episodes and chronology that focused on what happened rather than the ties and relationships between the characters. But that apparently was the tale that Didion wanted to tell, and she is extremely focused and determined in her tasks. “You always have to be right” John used to badger her as she “sees it straight.” “The cool customer” is how an EMT depicts her, and Hedman relays just that. Perfectly coiffed in Didion’s signature bob-cut, sitting in the big Papasan wicker chair in tailored black jeans, wide sleeved white sweater (costumes by Brandee Matthies), and oversized Jackie-style sunglasses (which she amusingly uses as reading glasses at one point), Hedman hits the stylish 5th Avenue vogue to perfection. Maybe her affect and cadence needed to be warmer to help draw us into the analytical passages that seemed stilted – but even a Redgrave could probably just do so much with it.
Still, the message comes across loud and clear, without tear-jerking pity or heart string manipulations. It will happen to all of us. It’s just a matter of time when we too will wonder–if His eye is on the sparrow, how could this happen? Recent tragic events of horrendous suffering from the worst metro calamity in its history, where folks were just going on their routine getting home from work, or the death of iconic celebrities that shaped the cultural landscape are reminders that it’s only a matter of time. Didion’s exquisite reflections and observations as she struggles to let go of her husband and daughter upon the end of their life journeys, actually can bring solace and comfort to those of us who have to let go whether through accident, senseless violence, sudden cataclysmic departures or slow debilitation. The grief is real, stealthy, and inconsolable.
Didion’s reflections help us deal with the passages of ashes to ashes and dust to dust, while acknowledging the lives and meaning of loved ones who have gone on before. This too will pass. And so it is.
The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion, adapted for the stage from her memoir of the same title
directed by Serge Seiden and Joy Zinoman
produced at Studio Theatre
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson