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Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Regional Reviews

The Year of Magical Thinking
at The Vortex Theatre

Also see Rosemary's review of For Colored Girls ...

Debi Kierst
In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, novelist, journalist, historian, memoirist Joan Didion narrates her grieving after the sudden fatal heart attack of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. Didion adapted the book into a dramatic monologue and added the death of their daughter Quintana, which occurred shortly after the book was published. Quintana's illness weaves through Didion's tapestry of unrelenting anguish. Both crises shake her faith and send her searching for meaning in life.

Didion begins the monologue as she does the memoir:

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.

By repeating these lines throughout, the writer reinforces death as an unexpected intrusion into ordinary life. It comes in the middle of a book, a dinner, a conversation, a glass of Scotch. Facing this crisis, the survivor marshals her usual resources. For Didion this means gathering data, writing it down to give it meaning, and then revising it in order to change the outcome.

Therein lies her "magical thinking." Didion's mundane magic involves hanging on to her husband's shoes because he'll need them when he returns. For most of the first year she believes she can bring him back. An early poignant moment of "magical thinking" occurs when a friend is helping her submit an obituary to the New York Times. Didion wants to call Los Angeles so they'll hear the news from her rather than reading the Times obit. Then she thinks, if Los Angeles is three hours behind maybe John isn't yet dead there: she can save him by flying there.

Didion fights descending into self-pity by rousing her anger toward the medical profession. She resists by controlling everything surrounding John's death and Quintana's illness. When she arrives at the hospital an ambulance behind the one that carried her already dead husband, she's greeted by a social worker. At that moment, she knows. She greets the attending physician with "He's dead, isn't he?" If she can outsmart the professionals, she believes she can control and reverse John's death.

Didion remembers that John predicted his death, but she refused to believe him, thinking that she could prevent it by resisting. "It's the widow maker, pal," said John's cardiologist about a flaw in his heart. In November John insisted they go to Paris or he'd never see it again, so they went. She searches the literature of death for other premonitions. In the Chanson de Roland Gawain says, "I tell you that I shall not live two days." He knew, as John did.

With a twist of ironic humor and a laugh she recalls their frequent arguments. "Why do you always have to be right? Can't you just let it go?" asked John, her life lesson now from the grave. Toward the end of her year of mourning and wishful magic, Didion searches religious literature for consolation and finds the oft-repeated liturgical phrase: "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end." After John's death the words mean to her not a promise of eternal life but "a literal description of the constant changing of the earth." She concludes: "No eye was on the sparrow. No one was watching me."

Debi Kierst creates a more fiercely animated Joan Didion than the one I imagined from reading the memoir. I invented a stoic, soft-spoken, self-effacing Didion, someone who speaks out of the still photographs of Vanessa Redgrave in the role on Broadway that I didn't see. Almost in contradiction to my vision, Kierst presents an angry, aggressive, controlling, and downright argumentative Didion. She's not nearly as likeable as my imaginary Didion but actually more true to the original memoir. She rages about the stage, banging a chair with a startling thud, furiously challenging and blaming the doctors, John, and God.

Debi Kierst, who teaches theater at Sandia Prep, has performed leading roles at other Albuquerque theatres, including Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Vortex), Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, Gertrude in Hamlet and Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, which she performed and analyzed for her MFA in Acting and Directing from Texas Tech University. Last summer she dazzled local audiences with Miss Margarida's Way for Camino Real Productions at the Hispanic Cultural Center and those in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Seeing Kierst's skillful acting accentuates the brilliance of Didion's writing. Her character becomes the universal grieving person, a mirror in which we see ourselves. At several moments, Kierst's Didion peers through a thinning fourth wall to challenge the audience: "This will happen to you." Once, she stood in front of me, fixing me with her unblinking gaze, uttering the prophesy and casting me as a mourner-to-be stand-in for all of us. Any one of us can drop dead in an instant or receive a fatal diagnosis. We each imprint our story on this personal drama with its irrefutable message of universal mortality.

Director Denise Schulz, UNM Professor Emeritus of Theatre and Dance, has directed plays for UNM, California State University at Fullerton, and Tricklock Theatre Company. Most recently, she directed The Three Sisters at the Vortex and Rag and Bone for the Blackout Theatre Company. Schulz has wisely chosen to direct a robust Didion, showcasing Kierst's full range of emotion and using the whole stage.

Production Director John Malolepsy, also UNM Professor Emeritus of Theatre and Dance, has designed in San Francisco, St Petersburg, and Santa Fe, and exhibited designs around the world. For the Didion play he fills the stage: a chair and table with teapot stage right for introspective moments, an ornate antique sofa center for expansive speeches, and a work area stage left for controlling moments. Three screens project photographs illustrating past moments Didion is bringing to life.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, directed by Denise Schulz, will be presented at The Vortex Theatre, 2004 Central Ave. NE, Albuquerque, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2 pm through May 15, 2011. For reservations, visit or call 505 247 8600. Tickets are $15, cash, check, Visa or Mastercard.

Photo: Alan Mitchell

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Albuquerque area

-- Rosemary Keefe

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