“The Year of Magical Thinking” is a collaboration, very nearly a sort of collision, involving two of the most gloriously gifted, most relentlessly eccentric women currently working in the arts.”The Year of Magical Thinking,” novelist and essayist Joan Didion’s memoir of the period following the sudden 2003 death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, held a high place on the New York Times list of non-fiction bestsellers fir more than a year.
The California-born and -bred Didion’s collected writings suggest a nearly obsessive concentration on wrenching self-revelation and scorching introspection, Now, she has mined the materials of “Magical Thinking,” the most successful item in her long career, and converted them into a one-woman play which she regards as a fresh work, as opposed to an outright adaptation of the book itself.
In the resulting text, converted into an immaculate 90-minute stage production, Vanessa Redgrave is portraying Didion, whom she in no way resembles either physically or, it would seem, temperamentally. Neither of these divergences matters in the least, considering the concentrated excellence of what this unlikely-seeming pair has managed to bring to vivid life on the stage of the Booth Theatre.
It is remarkable just how much vivid life has been breathed into a work that, after all, is a meditation on, and exploration of, death and its resonance in the lives of the surviving.
The very first lines of Didion’s script clearly reflect her desire to connect her material with her audiences, bridging any gap which might potentially separate them.
“This happened on Dec. 30, 2003,” she writes. “That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you.”
Dunne, Didion’s husband of nearly 40 years, had died in their East Side apartment, just five days after Christmas, victim of a massive heart attack which he’d suffered as his wife was preparing a fireside meal.
Didion and Dunne had worked together extensively, writing screenplays such as “Up Close and Personal,” and the version of “A Star is Born” which starred Barbra Streisand, in addition to the work they did as individuals.
If there were a single word capable of indicating the precise tone of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” as directed by playwright David Hare, it might be restraint, a quality with which the production is imbued and enriched in every respect, starting with the modest, subdued costume worn by the brilliant Redgrave, seated quietly onstage when the curtain rises, and extending to the understated scenery, lighting and sound scheme provided by, respectively, Bob Crowley, Jean Kalman and Paul Arditti.
In a nearly monochromatic outfit, Redgrave sits on a straight-backed wooden chair and tells the story, rising to a standing position only a couple of times, and then very briefly.
What the remarkable and durable star does, again and again, is to relate with unusual directness and candor to patrons seated in the rows nearest the stage. When she tells them of certain details of what her character has undergone, it must be difficult for some audience members not to look away, avoiding the intensity and rigorousness of her gaze.
Didion’s title refers to the custom, most prevalent among so-called “primitive” peoples, of allowing an object to stand in as a substitute for a loss that has been sustained. The symbol Didion created to sustain her hope that Dunne might somehow reappear was her refusal to dispose of his shoes, fueling an intense feeling, composed in equal parts of hope and belief, that he might return and once again wear them.
Joan Didion’s grief was compounded by the passing, not long after the death of her husband, of the couple’s only daughter, Quintana Roo, who, after suffering from a lengthy illness, succumbed to a form of toxic shock.
In the script that Didion has written, and which Hare has directed with grace and subtlety, there are numerous references to friends and colleagues of the couple, many of which are left unexplained and even unidentified, beyond the mere mention of their names.
Audiences may or may not recognize these individuals, which doesn’t seem to bother Didion, since they are all, in one way or another, part of the life she has lived, and of the tale she is telling. There is, however, one rather puzzling omission. The name of Dominic Dunne, John Gregory Dunne’s brother, probably best known as the celebrity-struck Vanity Fair journalist, is never mentioned, even in passing.
Some potential audiences, without ever having read Joan Didion’s celebrated book, will very probably give in to the rumor, already abroad around town, that the show will prove unbearably depressing. In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth, since, to be realistic, death touches us all sooner or later, despite our attempts to deny the fact. Didion’s honest, uncompromising memoir of personal loss ranks alongside such imperishable works as James Agee’s great novel on the subject, “A Death in the Family.”
Anyone who avoids “The Year of Magical Thinking” out of a fear of its being a downer, will, in fact, be missing out on one of the season’s genuine highlights, as theatrically memorable as it is emotionally rewarding.