There is a journalistic precision to "The Year of Magical Thinking," Joan Didion's stage distillation of her best-seiling memoir about death and the consequences for those left behind.
That precision, whether dealing with medical facts or emotional responses, informs this adaptation, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Booth Theatre. Didion is an impeccable observer, and when her insights and descriptions are delivered by an actress as accomplished as Vanessa Redgrave, you know the evening will achieve moments of eloquence.
Yet despite the star's formidable presence, "Magical Thinking" still works better on the page than on the stage. Didion's language is cerebral and exact; her musings punctuated by careful and detailed research. It doesn't easily lend itself to theater.
For much of the 80-minute, one-woman show, Redgrave, dressed simply in a white blouse and long gray skirt, sits center stage in a wooden beach chair. At first, her tone is conversational as she directly addresses the audience, warning them, as soon as the curtain goes up, that what has happened to her will happen to them, too.
Death will disrupt everything. "Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends," goes one of Didion's more famous pronouncements - one taken right from the book. She is commenting on the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, whose fatal heart attack right before supper on Dec. 30, 2003, triggers her highly personal tale.
Another phrase in the book - "information is control" - hovers over much of the stage version of "Magical Thinking." Didion painstakingly sets out to reconstruct the details of her husband's death, his funeral and what came afterward, particularly her dealings with her daughter, Quintana, herself battling severe illnesses.
Quintana's death, which occurred in August 2005, was not included in the book but it takes on a prominence in the play. In fact, it is the playwright's attempt to come to terms with this second death that brings the play to its touching conclusion.
Didion is analytical and unsparing in her descriptions - even of herself. When a doctor struggles to tell her that Dunne has died, a social worker interjects, "It's OK. She's a pretty cool customer."
The woman arms herself with facts, using them as a shield to protect herself from facing her husband's death and her daughter's serious medical problems.
"I cannot think of what is gone. If I think of what’s gone the difference between then and now will take me,” she says.
At times, these facts give the play a chilly, antiseptic feeling as the woman painstakingly describes - in almost clinical detail what both her husband and daughter went through.
David Hare, better known as a playwright than a director, has statically staged "Magical Thinking." Redgrave is anchored to that chair for much of the evening. Behind her are a series of curtains resembling a shoreline - perhaps the beach at Malibu where Didion, Dunne and their daughter spent some of their happiest times together.
These curtains, designed by Bob Crowley, drop precipitously during Redgrave's monologue, dividing the play into scenes that, not surprisingly, could be chapters in a book.
The actress, tall and regal in bearing, doesn't resemble the small, birdlike Didion at all. Redgrave wisely refuses to resort to impersonation, although she does affect an odd accent that sounds vaguely mid-Atlantic American.
Didion offers no solution for dealing with the inevitability of death and the letting go of what has happened. She still holds onto bits and pieces of the past, and those are, perhaps, the most human elements in 'The Year of Magical Thinking."
There are four or five actresses who could sit in a chair for 90 minutes talking about death and its aftershocks and have you hanging on every word. Vanessa Redgrave is one of them, and we're lucky to have her back on Broadway in the new play "The Year of Magical Thinking."
It matters, of course, that the words she's saying have been painstakingly crafted by Joan Didion, who adapted them, in large part, from her acclaimed memoir of the same title. Few authors are keener observers or more eloquent storytellers than Didion, whose career spans journalism, movies and books. This time out Didion turns her powers on her unvarnished self.
With this actress portraying this writer, "The Year of Magical Thinking," which opened yesterday at the Booth, is a theatrical experience you will never forget.
The monologue follows the 2003 death of Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne. The other part of the play, not covered so extensively in the memoir, is about their daughter, Quintana, who was in a coma when her father died. She died shortly after the book came out in 2005.
The play is filled with sharp insights, images that are both beautiful and awful, and generous doses of humor. What makes it so special is Didion's capacity and talent to take you through the tricks of the mind when it comes to grief. Magical thinking refers to Didion's belief, as crazy as it sounds, that if she did the right things (not getting rid of Dunne's shoes, for example) or thought the right thoughts (can't drive up that street), she could reverse the reality of the deaths.
British playwright and director David Hare stages the production simply, focusing squarely on the words and the performance and immediately making the audience part of the story. "It will happen to you," we hear in the opening minute. "That's why I'm here."
The set (by Bob Crowley, with lighting by Jean Kalman) is a bare stage, save for a wooden chair in front of fabric backdrops that periodically fall - with a whoosh - and vanish into the floor. The character is left amid an ever-expanding void. The metaphor is clear and stirring.
There is a picture in the Playbill of Didion alongside Redgrave. It's an unlikely match: Didion is tiny, fragile, sparrowlike; Redgrave is tall, sturdy, a falcon. The Oscar winner, using an American accent, avoids showy displays of emotion. There are a few yelps of anguish, heightening the story's impact, but she mostly speaks in a hushed manner that proves captivating.
The play isn't 100% successful. Toward the end, Redgrave as Didion rises from the chair and reads from the original book. It's a strange moment, as if we'd left the theater and had moved to a Barnes & Noble. Shortly after, she recalls being asked if chronicling her experience was comforting. Instead of a straight answer, she refers to geology. The character recollects images and events with crystal clarity - she even spells the name of a drug - but can be evasive and remote about feelings.
Those are, however, minor complaints about a play that is as intensely intimate as it is universal.
Death is something that always happens to other people - and those of us left behind have to deal with its devastation. Most of us have suffered the chaotic pain that we all will, in our own turn, cause.
Death - its aftermath and its wary acceptance - was the subject of Joan Didion's best-selling memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking," and it's also the subject of Didion's own dramatization, opening last night in a cauterizing performance by Vanessa Redgrave staged with simple, graveyard clarity by David Hare.
Redgrave and Hare have created a starkly honest theatrical miracle out of Didion's text, which I find admirable yet suspect in its all too rational agony.
Unlike many, I'm not a particular admirer of Didion's prose style - its careful elegance and calculated irony have always struck me as clever, precious and rather shallow. And so, while I read the admiring reviews of her memoir, I skipped the book, preferring to take it as it now stands: a 90-minute, semistream-of-consciousness monologue of virtuoso brilliance by a great actress.
Didion had the shattering life experience of losing both a beloved husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter within a year of one another.
In the play, the Didion/Redgrave figure - it's part of Redgrave and Hare's triumph that the two totally merge - starts off by telling us: ''This happened on Dec. 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago, but it won't when it happens to you.
"And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That's what I'm here to tell you." Exactly.
Actually, it has happened to more people in the audience than Didion perhaps imagines. It is humanity's plight. Ask the survivors of the 9111 victims. Ask the people along the road, or across the hall.
Few will have had two such blows in crushing quick succession - but as Didion tells it she was, on a Kansas airstrip, already accepting the first before the second finally struck. But tragedy happens to us all.
What most of us don't have is Didion's narcissistic objectivity that can lead to such exquisitely wry comments as "How far have I absented myself from the world of normal response?" Pretty far, I would guess. Didion is, for all her grand mannerisms, still very savvy on reactions to death, and how people treat the recently bereaved.
And she raises the question: Do people know when death is close? After citing her husband, she quotes from a classic 15th-century text, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" - although, if I recall correctly, Sir Gawain, despite his eerie premonition, didn't die.
It doesn't matter. Slowly, with the certainty of theatrical genius, nothing matters, as Redgrave – assisted by Hare and Bob Crowley's scenic design, which is simply a series of collapsing curtains patterned like watered silk - takes both text and audience into a never-never land of acceptance.
Those calculated phrases and unlikely detachment as she seeks to escape from her sense of what she calls "a vortex" of pained remembrance dissolve into a performance so intense in its casual passion that a stilted literary expression is transformed into a reality of life.
This is acting at its grandest.
The substance is in the silences in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the arresting yet ultimately frustrating new drama starring Vanessa Redgrave that opened last night at the Booth Theater.
This may seem surprising, given that the author is Joan Didion, who has adapted her extraordinary best-selling memoir about being blindsided by death. As a writer Ms. Didion has a peerless ear for the music of words in motion.
And this theatrical version of her account of losing her husband and her daughter within two years includes classic Didionesque sentences, as hard and translucent as hailstones. But it is in the quiet between the words, as she tastes and digests what she has said, that Ms. Redgrave — playing a character named Joan Didion — comes closest to capturing Ms. Didion’s voice and the delicate layering of harsh feelings that made the book such a stunner.
When I first read “Magical Thinking,” after experiencing the deaths of three people close to me in as many years, I felt I had been given an enchanted mirror, the kind in fairy tales that tells you the truth about yourself. (For the record I have a slight social acquaintance with Ms. Didion.)
Yet at the Booth Theater I never felt the magnetic pull that I experienced in reading the book. Though the script is by Ms. Didion, with many of its sentences lifted directly from the memoir, I never heard Ms. Didion’s voice when Ms. Redgrave was speaking.
That voice of course is one of the most insistently hypnotic in literature. Try reading Ms. Didion’s early novel “Play It As It Lays” in one sitting, and then try not thinking in the spare elliptical patterns of her prose. It’s impossible. The easiest choice in bringing “Year” to the stage would have been to ride the rhythms of that style: a controlled voice that, in keeping chaos and terror at bay, reminds us of their inescapable existence.
The stage version emphasizes the everywoman aspect of Ms. Didion’s personal anatomy of grief. Like the book, the play is shaped by the harrowing stories of the death in late 2003 of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and of the long, baffling illness of their daughter, Quintana, who died in the summer of 2005. (Her death, at 39, which occurred after Ms. Didion had completed her memoir, forms a new final chapter in the play.)
Ms. Redgrave, in a simple pale skirt and blouse, is an imposing, Cassandra-like creature, a prophetess at a temple of doom where we must all someday arrive.
Bob Crowley’s set (exquisitely accented by Jean Kalman’s lighting) is a series of painted drop curtains, suggesting a view of the desert by someone who has stared at the sun for too long.
Her first words would seem to confirm her oracular status: “This happened on Dec. 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you.” There is no equivalent to this admonition in the book. That’s because it isn’t necessary.
As Ms. Redgrave continues to slide through the narrator’s past and present — from the gray world of hospitals and funeral arrangements to a sunny shared familial past — she gives sharp life to a variety of moods: fury at medical incompetence and evasiveness, passionate maternal solicitude, conspiratorial feyness as she speaks of her belief that her dead husband will come back to her if only she performs the right actions.
Some moments — yes, silent ones — are remarkable. I have not, for example, been able to erase from my mind Ms. Redgrave’s face from an early scene. It’s after she, as Ms. Didion, has spoken of seeing her husband silent and slumped in a chair in their apartment at the end of a trying day. “I thought he was making a joke,” she says. “Slumping over. Pretending to be dead.”
Ms. Redgrave’s expression conveys two levels of consciousness: She is in the moment she has just described, irritated with what she perceives to be an ill-timed joke. And she is in the present tense — still angry with herself and the grotesque cosmic prank she has participated in — because her husband wasn’t joking at all.
In that small second or two Ms. Redgrave’s magnificent face, wry and wounded, is the reproachful emblem of the guilt and exasperation that the living so often feel toward the dying and the dead. There is also reflected that disorientation that comes from a death’s abrupt way of changing the rules by which you have always lived your life.
Such moments erupt often enough throughout this production, which is directed with austere eloquence by the playwright David Hare, to raise the show well above the level of an audiotape. Students of acting are advised to buy tickets as close as possible to the stage to observe the presence and craft that allows one woman to hold an audience’s attention for 90 uninterrupted minutes.
But while my eyes never left Ms. Redgrave, I was also never free of a nagging dissatisfaction. I never felt I knew who this woman was. The big emotions register luminously. But do they connect with the portrait of someone who was described on the night of her husband’s death by a hospital social worker as “a pretty cool customer”? Much of what Ms. Didion depicts in her book is the state of self-preserving numbness that descends in crisis.
Ms. Redgrave doesn’t do numb. She never seems more naturally herself here than when she is quoting, radiantly, from the medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” As an artist she works on a heroic scale. Ms. Didion is a miniaturist, even when her subjects are vast.
And though many of the experiences and feelings described are universal, you cannot separate the impact of the book from Ms. Didion’s identity as a writer.
This is an early passage from the memoir: “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote was to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding what it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.”
The dynamic in the book arises from the tension between this impenetrable style and the emotions that war with it, that mock its elegant self-containment. That Ms. Didion never abandons those careful, chiseled sentences paradoxically leads us straight to the feelings beneath them.
When she describes, after a day of trying to keep herself composed and detached, finding to her surprise that she is crying, we know just how she feels. As readers we’ve been ambushed by a sorrow that was always there but that we were trying to deal with as dispassionately as the narrator.
That tension has not been translated to the stage. Ms. Redgrave sounds all the emotional notes in the play clearly and articulately in its first sequences, meaning there’s no further journey for her to take us on.
The consolation is that Vanessa Redgrave is Vanessa Redgrave, and she has her own means of plumbing depths. Watch, for example, the attention she gives to a bracelet on her arm, and how she develops it. It will break your heart.
There is no doubt that she is a great artist. So is Ms. Didion. The problem with “The Year of Magical Thinking” is that their artistry pulls in different directions.
"The Year of Magical Thinking" is 90 minutes of spellbinding theater.
Anyone must wonder who read Joan Didion's bestselling memoir of 2005, or scanned the pounds of newspaper excerpts and stories that accompanied its overwhelming reviews, then followed the admiring TV segments and the advance stories that preceded last night's opening of the adaptation at the Booth Theatre.
That is, anyone must wonder how the theater will ever find anything left unsaid about the abyss of grief after the deaths of her husband, fellow novelist John Gregory Dunne, in 2003 and, their adult daughter, Quintana, 20 months later.
The answer is Vanessa Redgrave. In an electrifying confluence of formidable females, this magnificent actress has reached her long, lean tentacles into Didion's deep, lean recollections, fastens those pewter eyes on a space beyond the audience and dares us to think that we have ever before heard any of this exquisitely told story. More, she makes it feel unseemly for us to acknowledge that, perhaps, we've even thought any of these mourning words ourselves.
The novelist - a journalist as well as a screenwriter – has adapted her own book with a conversational flair, updating the memoirs to include the precise and terrible details of the death, from recurring septic shock, of their only child.
David Hare, more often a playwright than a director, has staged the piece with the crisp intimacy we feel when alone with Didion's written words in our head. Although we question the need for silken backdrops to fall away to signal the end of sections, the serene Japanese-looking abstractions (designed by the masterly Bob Crowley) suggest the cumulative embrace and retreat of the sea.
Redgrave sits quietly, for the most part, on an unbleached wood chair in the center of the stage. Banish all images of her most recent Tony triumph, her febrile, feeble, self-immolating Mary Tyrone four years ago in "Long Day's Journey into Night."
After all, Didion was described as "one cool character" by a social worker at the hospital after Dunne's sudden heart attack. And, despite Redgrave's reputation for eccentric live-for-today onstage brilliance, she becomes that cool character here, too.
She is dressed simply and tastefully - a drapey gray skirt and white blouse, her hair fastened at the back of her neck with a scrunchie. Her hair looks white and her face, scrubbed and used-up, as she tells the details of the evening when her soulmate of 40 years simply stopped living while she prepared dinner in their New York apartment.
But when memories turn from ICUs to the family's other home in Malibu, Calif., or from funeral clothes to fireworks in Hawaii, we swear we can see the adventurous young woman lift the weight off Redgrave's heroic jawline. Every so often, she almost absentmindedly lets her hair fall from its bindings and - call it good lighting (by Jean Kalman) or call it witchcraft - her hair glistens yellow.
The play begins almost as a cautionary justification. "This happened on Dec. 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago, but it won't when it happens to you." In case we don't get her drift, "You don't want to think it could happen to you. That's why I'm here."
Before we can answer the impulse to bolt into life outside the theater, we are seduced back into the details of catastrophes that tend to occur on "ordinary" days. The journalist in Didion needs the facts, the documents, powerful reportage because "you might think you see it straight but you won't" and, if she examines the evidence, she might be able to see the death "as a kind of first draft" and make it right.
Although she is going through the proper public rituals, she really believes that John will come back. If she gives away his shoes, what will he wear on his feet? Similarly, if she can keep their daughter alive, John will come back. This "magical thinking," she now concedes, was a kind of insanity.
There is banality in certain observations presented as profound insights. Some might resent the privilege of someone, despite unfathomable loss, who has the Beverly Wilshire to keep her warm, and access to a private jet to bring her daughter home. But convenience is hardly the same as comfort.
When Redgrave breaks her measured calmness and moans, "I want him back/, her mouth is suddenly a black hole that no amount of magical thinking can fill. And it is horrible and wonderful at once.
Public airings of private trauma have become as much a staple of celebrity culture as the red carpet. So in The Year of Magical Thinking (*** out of four), when a famous woman soberly tells us "You don't want to think it could happen to you," it might seem like a setup for another onslaught of over-sharing.
But because the woman speaking is Vanessa Redgrave, and her words belong to Joan Didion, there's no cause for queasiness. Magical Thinking, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Booth Theatre, is Didion's adaptation of her best-selling memoir of the same name, in which the author recounted her struggles to come to terms with the death of her husband of nearly 40 years, John Gregory Dunne.
Didion's original account of coping with the loss of her life partner, while also grappling with the erratic condition of their adult daughter, Quintana, who had fallen into septic shock shortly before Dunne's heart attack and was comatose when he died, didn't stint on emotional or medical detail. But it had none of the audience-baiting smarminess we expect from more shallow, self-serving confessors. Didion wasn't soliciting sympathy; she simply was trying to relay a difficult story with as much candor and logic as possible.
The play, directed with rigorous elegance by David Hare, is marked by the same lack of sanctimony and sentimentality. Dignity is the word that comes to mind in describing Redgrave's performance and Didion's script. The latter incorporates Quintana's death after the book was completed, allowing the writer to explore the tortured mix of denial, guilt and helplessness that accompanied this second, more drawn-out tragedy.
Didion's chronicle of suffering and survival may be more dramatic for theatergoers who don't already know its outcome. However horrific the events she endured and however cruel their timing, there are few elements of mystery or, in truth, revelation in their retelling.
And the scrupulous integrity of Didion's writing, her refusal to indulge in cheap theatrics, demands that Redgrave use the full weight of her presence while also showing great reserve.
The actress meets that challenge, of course, mining the wit and grace of Didion's words and the mind-bending sorrow of her experience. Redgrave does this, miraculously, while remaining seated through most of the show, imparting expressive powers to such simple gestures as clutching her hands or playing with her hair.
Toward the end, Redgrave, standing, reads an excerpt from Didion's book, beginning, "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it." Maybe so, but Magical Thinking, in its unfussy way, brings us a little closer.
Joan Didion's best nonfiction writing has always been distinguished by a rare balance between probing personal reflection and clear-eyed reportorial detachment. That combination found a new acuity in her shattering 2005 memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," which chronicled the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, while at the same time dealing with the illness of their daughter, Quintana. Adapting the book for the stage, Didion has filleted the text into a spare but compelling solo piece. Whether or not it's a play is difficult to judge in David Hare's audaciously austere production, given how inextricably linked the work is to Vanessa Redgrave's riveting interpretation. But regardless of how it's classified, this is unmissable theater.
The most significant difference between the stage monologue and the original book is that while Quintana died of acute pancreatitis less than two months before the book's publication, Didion declined to update the memoir, insisting in interviews that it was finished.
Given the cathartic nature of the writing, which draws the reader into the very private process of grieving and of taking stock when the foundations of the writer's life were pulled out from under her, there's a strong sense in the theatrical piece of further self-exploration. Didion has not so much adapted the existing work for the stage as continued its painful process of fathoming the unfathomable.
"Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity." The first words Didion wrote after Dunne's sudden death of a massive heart attack are the vital starting point of the book and the play. While they don't come at the opening onstage but after Dunne's actual death is recounted, they still serve as the trigger for everything that follows -- the violent upheaval, the denial, the self-reproach over unheeded warning signals, the edge-of-insanity, "what-if" mental bargaining and backtracking that constitutes a futile attempt to reverse the events, the stinging enlightenment of acceptance and the ultimate relinquishment.
From among the author's fixation with details -- the lab reports, lists of medication, diagnoses and prognoses -- and her uncontrollable whirl of memories, what emerges so eloquently is a candid portrait of an almost 40-year marriage and the sheer dizzying destabilization of having that partnership subtracted from the writer's life without warning.
The process in the book was made even more raw by Didion's ability to convey the terrifying powerlessness of being the parent of a sick child. Given that the loss of Quintana is articulated onstage, this aspect is communicated even more trenchantly in the play.
The title comes from anthropology, suggesting the folklore of primitive cultures in which a different line of thinking might revise an outcome. But this is less a work of philosophical or spiritual rumination than a more concrete act of establishing order in a time of chaos. Didion writes of the need to maintain focus and control, of keeping on the correct track: "Correct is important to me." The writer and Hare could hardly have found a more authoritative vehicle for that struggle for control than Redgrave.
The actress is not so much playing Didion as channeling her experience. Physically, the two women couldn't be less alike. Didion is tiny, birdlike and frail; Redgrave is tall, robust and regal, capable of generating the most turbulent emotions onstage. But seated on a wooden chair centerstage for most of the performance, she draws herself in with quiet intensity, her shock of white hair and haunted eyes seeming to radiate their own light.
The expressiveness of Redgrave's eyes or her beautiful hands, with long graceful fingers, provide as mesmerizing a focus as her words. Like her occasional, brief animation to anger or excitement, her gestures are always subtle and economical, with only an almost imperceptible slump of her shoulders conveying her final acceptance of death as intransmutable fact. Or those eyes -- febrile and alert as they seek out and engage the audience throughout the play, frequently filled with surprising humor and lightness -- drifting off to stare blankly at the back wall in sorrow.
Hare's elegant staging allows no distractions or enhancements save the occasional faint sound effect and designer Bob Crowley's curtains, which drop at key points in the text to progressively deepen the stage space. White silk falls away to reveal rippling black, then a pale, impressionistic watercolor of ocean and horizon that becomes more abstract and distant with each transition, marked also by Jean Kalman's exquisitely cadenced lighting.
Water is a moving motif throughout as Didion fights to control the treacherous vortex of memory yet keeps going back to the same image of John wrapping Quintana in towels on the deck of their Malibu home after she came out of the ocean. Even the more practical concerns of getting Quintana stable and discharged from the hospital are connected to water: "She needs to be in the water. She needs to let what hair she has go green from the chlorine. We can get her hair properly washed at the Beverly Wilshire. We can sit by the pool and have our nails done together."
It's the beauty and longing of these simple, obsessive thoughts, the magical thinking that shuts out unendurable reality, that make something so penetrating out of writing that's notable for its emotional restraint.
Didion's approach to staging the memoir will not satisfy those looking for a fully theatricalized translation, and a lesser actress certainly would reveal the piece's limitations. A moment in the final stretch, in particular, when a hardcover copy of the book materializes in Redgrave's hands and she reads a passage about grief as a destination we will all one day share, seems to underline that this is as much a staged reading as a dramatization.
There's perhaps no equal to the wrenching illumination of being alone with Didion's observations on the page. But the sobriety of this incarnation is entirely true to the tone of her memoir. The startling intimacy and affecting altruism of its insights on loss and their rigorous refusal of any of the standard dealing-with-death rhetoric allow the monologue to continue resonating well after Redgrave has taken her bows.