We gave it a B+
How do you come to terms with the sudden loss of a spouse — or a child? If you are author Joan Didion, the formula involves rigorous attention to the known facts, similarly diligent avoidance of places that will trigger breakdown-inducing memories, and systematic leaps in logic to fill in any gaps.
In portraying Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, Vanessa Redgrave appreciates all these contradictory impulses. The British actress bears little physical resemblance to the wispy writer, though she nails Didion’s flattened California speech cadences. For 90 mesmerizing minutes, Redgrave’s Didion commands the stage, emerging as a figure as indomitable as Mother Earth herself while revealing new depths of vulnerability.
Didion’s story is enough to make anyone feel vulnerable. Her daughter, Quintana, checked into a New York City hospital with flulike symptoms on Christmas Day 2003, entered septic shock, and became comatose. Five days later, Didion’s devoted husband of nearly 40 years, novelist John Gregory Dunne, dropped dead in front of her.
During the year that followed, Didion coped in the only way she knew how: reporting. She studied the autopsy records, hospital files, and doormen’s log of her apartment building. When rationality failed her, she resorted to what she called ”magical thinking.” She gave away Dunne’s T-shirts and sweatpants, but not his suits or shoes — he would need them, she reasoned, if he came back.
The mind-tricking effects of her grief dissipated over time, as Didion recorded in her best-selling 2005 memoir. But as that book went to press, fate intruded: Quintana, who had spent 2004 in and out of hospitals, passed away. In her play, Didion more deeply probes the fallout of this second tragedy. It is one thing to fool oneself about the realities of life and death, she observes, but is it wrong to mislead one’s own children, to assure them that ”You’re safe. I’m here” when the outcome is in fact far from certain?
This provocative question is underscored by director David Hare’s elegantly spare, efficient staging. Redgrave appears alone on stage with only a wooden chair, at one point using her plain gold bracelet as a gut-wrenching prop.
Didion’s memoir had a tidy narrative arc: After one year of self-delusion, she began to imagine a life without Dunne because only a year earlier she was able to get through such a day. But the necessary addition of Quintana’s death in the play both deepens the poignancy and disrupts its natural structure. The show has four or five endings, a flaw that seems somehow apt. It’s as if, even now, the writer still finds it difficult to accept her late husband’s admonishment ”For once in your life will you just let it go.”