“The Year of Magical Thinking,” the book, is a requiem for Joan Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne. The play of the same name is different; it focuses on the illness and death of her daughter Quintana, less than two years after losing her husband.
David Hare directs an austere production. Everything is the color of mist. The set, designed by Bob Crowley, consists of layers of silk backdrops, which evoke abstract waterscapes in shades of gray and white. One by one, the silks ripple to the ground at intervals, punctuating the evening and gradually revealing the vacant depths of the stage. There is a lone chair, a bare wooden deck, both bleached as old bone. Jean Kalman’s lighting suggests bright sunshine and passing clouds. The sound design, by Paul Arditti, is also understated — there is a loud oceanic exhale with each falling silk, frightening and primitive, and then only sporadic echoes of children playing, or distant bells. The nucleus of this oblivion is Vanessa Redgrave, pale with white hair, in a gray skirt and white top.
The expectations aroused by the book are daunting. The memoir is an intensely private voice of pain. It recounts the year after the death of Didion’s husband, to whom she was married for 40 years. Didion tracks with surgical precision the ways in which she was quietly deranged by grief. In the collision between her rational mind and death, “magical thinking” took over: “I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.” In the face of her overpowering helplessness, magical thinking gave her the illusion of control, the illusion that she could save her family.
The play, although powerful and moving, cannot match the book in its personal devastation and existential dread. The reader confronts, alone, the terrifying emptiness and absence visited on Didion by death. This dread, palpable in the book, is dulled in the theater by the reassuring presence of the crowd and the controlled medium of an actor as majestic and commanding as Redgrave. Death is always easier to face in a group. The theater, in this case, dilutes the anguish and fear experienced in the private interior space of the solitary reader.
Redgrave, seated in the wooden chair, began chatty and lucid. There was unexpected humor in her advice about prescription drugs, her emphatic preference for Columbia Hospital over New York Presbyterian, the “sub-teen” in the white lab coat who was her husband’s doctor. It was an affable if intense dinner party conversation, not the stunned, halting, one-sentence paragraphs of Didion’s book.
“I have no idea which subject we were on, the Scotch or World War I, at the instant he stopped talking,” Redgrave says flippantly, an indulgent wife rolling her eyes at her husband. The audience laughed. The sentence is taken verbatim from the book, but on the page, it is stark and affectless. Redgrave, with a simple vocal inflection, protects us from the haunting, massive weight of Didion’s naked words. On stage was a woman who had had time to tame her loss and put it at a distance, rather than the hollow-eyed survivor of the memoir.
There is a public mask to private grief in the play. This does not occur in the book, which is an interior portrait of grief. Redgrave, seated and poised, was in constant motion. Her hands and eyes darting, turning to individual members of the audience, she took refuge in a flurry of details — memories of opening a restaurant, her daughter’s long-ago birthday party. Private pain can be converted into humor before a crowd. The “magical thinking” is even amusing at first, with an undercurrent of “Wasn’t I silly?” — believing her husband would come back if she kept his shoes; if the autopsy revealed what could make him better; if the Los Angeles Times did not print the obituary, for he could still be alive on the West Coast, where the hour of his death had not yet passed.
The façade cracks, bit by bit. The advance into deeper, darker waters is incremental and gradual. Didion has crafted the script so that each step into hazardous terrain is almost always followed by a retreat into merciful trivia. Musings on a crossword puzzle follow self-lacerating, agitated questions of self-pity. A strangled protest against her daughter’s death — “I followed the rules! I learned the language!” — is quickly deflected by the airy question, “What was I thinking when I bought those blue cotton scrubs?”
Redgrave, at one moment, physically embodied this oscillation. As she descended into troubling memories, her face became distant. She grimaced. The grimace became a laugh. The laugh unleashed warm memories of the family’s Malibu home.
It is when Quintana falls into a coma, after the death of her father, that Redgrave’s chatty tone dissolves. She had found sanctuary from the onslaught of grief in trivia, but with Quintana’s coma the crutch is removed. She is no longer safe.
“We shared a Big Mac in a cornfield in Kansas,” she tells someone about Quintana’s emergency hospital airlift and their unplanned landing. “It wasn’t a Big Mac, it was a Quarter-Pounder,” Quintana corrects her. Redgrave lingers lovingly, wistfully, over the words, the memory.
Redgrave and Hare, however valiantly they try, cannot overcome the fact that the process of thinking, detached from action, is not inherently theatrical. What is truly theatrical about “The Year of Magical Thinking” emerges only late in the piece, when Redgrave is at last allowed to bring her potent reserves of emotion to the surface. She stands at the edge of the stage, caught in harsh white light, and pleads in anguish with her dead daughter, “Did I lie to you? Did I lie to you all your life? When I said you were safe? Or did you believe it?” She turns away, her face in her hands. It is wrenching.
There is no attempt at impersonation. Redgrave is playing a character named Joan Didion, not Joan Didion herself. Redgrave’s muted British accent is not Didion’s voice. Her hair is unaltered. Redgrave has none of Didion’s physical fragility, and when the actor finally stands up from her low chair near the end of the evening, one feels that Hecuba has entered the arena.
But even more than the bereaved queen mother of Troy, Redgrave evokes her daughter, Cassandra, the prophet who was cursed, never to be believed. “It will happen to you,” she tells us. We listen and agree but, unless it has already happened to us, we do not fully believe.
Finally, inevitably, to death goes the victory. The birds fly unwatched and we are left alone. But as Redgrave speaks the last lines, her face tight with contained pain, we witness the tenacity of love. The memory and love of her husband and daughter reach beyond their death, to help her go on in their unending absence. This, despite the abandonment and anguish, is a narrow, aching ray of transcendence as the lights fade to black.
“The Year of Magical Thinking”
By Joan Didion, based on her memoir
Directed by David Hare
With Vanessa Redgrave (Joan Didion)
At the Booth Theater
222 W. 45th Street,
New York, New York
Through Aug. 25, 2007
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.