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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

The Year of Magical Thinking
TheaterWorks

Also see Fred's review of Around the World in 80 Days

Year of Magical Thinking
Annalee Jefferies
Joan Didion's play, The Year of Magical Thinking, succeeds, in large measure, through Annalee Jefferies' ability to find her way inside and grapple with Didion's single character for the entire ninety minutes of stage time. Didion's memoir, the basis for the one-woman piece, focuses upon the very personal disasters she has suffered—the deaths of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana. Steve Campo directs Jefferies, who channels inner Didion without forcing her way into the role. TheaterWorks in Hartford presents the play through May 24th.

Didion was married for forty years when her husband suddenly died. Their daughter, at the very same time, was in an induced coma, the victim of a medical calamity no one had anticipated. In 2005, Didion, the novelist and non-fiction writer who had penned Slouching Towards Bethlehem and, with her husband, screenplays for The Panic in Needle Park and Play It As It Lays among others, chose to initially reflect in book form. Thus, The Year of Magical Thinking.

While I haven't read the original, I suspect that I might prefer the non-fiction to the scripted version even though the play is, in itself, creditable, engaging, varied and informative. An hour and a half on stage might somehow be both too long and too short to best serve the material. On the one hand, just a few minutes might be shaved off the play. Individuals surrounding me could not consistently keep their eyes open. The written memoir, one posits, would afford the opportunity to ponder, set aside, and consider the many anecdotes and tributaries of Didion's life as she describes them.

Jefferies, who has performed many times for artistic director Michael Wilson at Hartford Stage (her appearances in Tennessee Williams plays deserve special mention), is sustaining and affecting as Didion. The actress locates the core of the writer's persona, and furnishes a complex being who is intellectually challenging, self-perceptive, and wry. Yes, Didion feels deeply, too. This play, as it chronicles, does not complete a straight line from start to finish. Perhaps this makes it a tad difficult to track. The script, for sure, is real and actual.

This stage play enables for cerebral rather than dramatic impact. The hooks are the content and, in this rendering, the actress. Brian Prather's set includes a white couch, a table, and a couple of glasses of water. Marcus Doshi's lighting varies tone and atmosphere. Jefferies has bangs and wears a gray top and pant outfit.

Didion's reflections take us from New York to Hawaii to France to California and so forth. To the author's credit, the audience is trapped—and this is a positive. Once seated and watching, you must listen and watch; this is not pretty but it is incisive. The center of the play is death. (No wonder some theatergoers blocked this away.)

Behind the heartache, we find a resilient Didion. A person who crafts words into essays, she chooses to express herself through her métier—a book. The script follows. Writing can serve as a release mechanism. Didion now shares her inner angst with others.

In many ways, The Year of Magical Thinking, is about truth. And, that is precisely what actors seek as they study, absorb, and perfect characters: the truth. This evening of theater extends beyond the final curtain. Jefferies, as Didion, says, "I didn't want the year that either of them died to end." Think about that.

The Year of Magical Thinking continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through May 24th. For ticket information, call the box office at (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.


Photo: Lanny Nagler


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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