Writer Joan Didion insists on having the last word. This insistence comes back to haunt her after she has one of those years—you know, the kind where catastrophes become the warp and woof of everyday life and the only thing you can do is hang onto routine until it almost takes on a mystical dimension.
Cruelly, Miss Didion has the last word in The Year of Magical Thinking, a one-woman play based on her award-winning memoir of the year when she first lost her husband John Gregory Dunne to a heart attack at their dining room table while her daughter Quintana was seriously ill and in a coma at a New York hospital. The shock of the loss of her husband and writing partner barely registers before Miss Didion is plunged into a series of medical calamities with her daughter that lead to the young woman’s death months later.
The stage play version of her spare book of grief starred Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway. At the Strand Theatre in Baltimore, local actress Dianne Hood takes on the role of the author, someone a hospital social worker labels “a cool customer.” Miss Hood takes a warmer, delicately bewildered approach to the role, a contrast to the steely and analytical tack chosen by Miss Redgrave on Broadway and Helen Hedman at Washington’s Studio Theatre a few seasons ago.
Miss Hood does more than hint at Miss Didion’s compassion and vulnerabilities roiling beneath her clipped, self-possessed exterior. As directed by Miriam Bazensky, the performance is affectingly sympathetic, which may be safer and more inviting for the audience but perhaps not as true to Miss Didion’s astringent persona.
The beauty of the book was Miss Didion approaching unthinkable, unrelieved tragedy with scientific rigor, examining the events and her reactions as if dissecting tissue or breaking down an equation. This dispassion allows Miss Didion—and her audience—necessary distance. It also allows for moments of droll, gallows humor.
In her book and the stage play, Miss Didion uses the irony of her situation to great effect. Celebrated for her detachment and scalpel-sharp observations, she finds herself abandoning intellect for what she called “magical thinking”— believing in rituals and superstition, searching her memory for signs that should have warned her or prepared her for the hardships that followed.
For all her supposed sangfroid, Miss Didion chastises herself for sinking into what she considers the most odious of emotions — self-pity — and for believing in her heart that she let her husband and daughter down by not keeping them safe. “You’re safe. I’m here”—the refrain she repeats to her daughter through her whole life becomes almost an incantation when tragedy strikes. When Miss Hood’s character speaks of combing her daughter’s sun-bleached hair or not being able to throw out her husband’s shoes because “he’ll need them when he returns,” your heart just cracks.
Miss Hood reveals the author’s maternal side in The Year of Magical Thinking, in the process making her a universal figure of motherly suffering — not Joan Didion.
The Year of Magical Thinking plays thru Feb 19, 2011 at the Strand Theater, 1823 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md.
The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
Directed by Miriam Bazensky
Produced by the Strand Theater
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard