Switching between mediums can be as difficult as telling someone about a dream. If the new version cannot deliver on everything the original does (next to impossible), it better bring some valuable contributions to the story rooted in the new medium’s strengths.
Joan Didion’s play The Year of Magical Thinking does neither, serving more as an unnecessary staged reading of a severely abridged audiobook than a new lease on life for the memoir of the same name and author.
Expectations are high for Kathleen Turner, a Tony and Academy Award nominee who is immediately greeted by warm applause upon taking the stage. She plays the playwright, attempting to deliver in one unbroken monologue the jist of Didion’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir covering the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne.
One original contribution the play provides, it also covers the death of Didion and Dunne’s daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. Dunne was gravely ill at the time of Dunne’s death, but recovered while Didion wrote the memoir. She became ill again and died before the manuscript could be printed. Didion opted not to rewrite the manuscript, but did include Quintana’s death in the play.
However, the audience would be better off reading both The Year of Magical Thinking and Didion’s following book, Blue Nights, which covers Quintana’s death, than to take the shortcut that this play offers.
Didion’s background as an essayist and memoirist shows positively in some of the language and insight, but also shows in the script’s stagnancy. Turner and director Gaye Taylor Upchurch look for moments for Turner to break up the recitation, but the script does not make it easy.
Additionally, cutting the 240-page memoir down to a 72-page script robs the audience of much of the language and insight that Didion is best at. The very “magical thinking” for which the play is named, the irrationality Didion experience as she coped with Dunne’s death, is underexplored. Often, it is substituted with Turner spouting off medical jargon Didion learned as she hunted for a magical escape from the death. The jargon is the least interesting part. Didion’s battle with “the death vortex,” the acceptance or even awareness of the event, is regrettably brief.
The Year of Magical Thinking
closes November 20, 2016
Details and tickets
The script is also chronologically disjointed, unmoored from the timeline. As a book, this may provide each sitting with a taste of before, during, and after. Delivered as one jumbled monologue, it greatly hinders pacing.
Even the accomplished Turner cannot liven the spoken essay. She delivers large swaths of the show in a plodding cadence, taking every opportunity to let a couple words sink in before getting through with the sentence. Page after page, it is like listening to a wet rug getting beaten clean.
As the play struggles to prove that it deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the book, it comes down to production elements.
Jesse Belsky’s lighting is a strong argument in the play’s favor. It flows with the script, light and dark, warm and cold, from several directions. The production is at its best when Daniel Zimmerman’s set and Belsky’s lighting work together to create distinct moments. At times, warm light shines through the apartment’s windows. When Didion first goes to the hospital, a blue light sterilizes the stage from above.
Zimmerman’s set looks like a real estate agent’s photograph of every literature-obsessed urbanite’s dream apartment: Well-decorated with a large library, though noticeably not lived-in. Turner does well to stroll across the whole apartment, grabbing books and drinks, humanizing the place she is meant to call home.
Unfortunately, Roc Lee’s sound design is both rare and often too quiet too discern. If the play’s greatest argument for its existence is Belsky and Zimmerman’s synergy, it is a shame they so rarely make meaningful use of Lee.
If Didion were not such a masterful author, this show may fare better. But the fact is, every single flaw has an easy solution: Read the book instead.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Performed by Kathleen Turner. Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Set design by Daniel Zimmerman. Costume design by Kathleen Geldard. Lighting by Jesse Belsky. Music and sound design by Roc Lee. Stage managed by Kurt Hall.