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.