Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 29, 2007
The Year of Magical Thinking A play by Joan Didion based on her memoir. Directed by David Hare. Scenic design by Bob Crowley. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Jean Kalman. Sound design by Paul Arditti. Cast: Vanessa Redgrave.
Those women, Joan Didion and Vanessa Redgrave, make the impossible seem commonplace by virtue of what they tell you and what they don't. Didion, who adapted the play from her best-selling memoir about the year following her husband John Gregory Dunne's sudden death, has still not chosen to give into the rampant emotionalism that characterized her book by its absence. And Redgrave, though an actress capable of producing searing pyrotechnics (as she proved in her Tony-winning 2003 stint in Long Day's Journey Into Night), plays Didion nearly throughout at her most subdued and conversational, as though she's already accepted death and life as a fait accompli.
However, the act of speaking such thoughts aloud, especially when the voice belongs to an actress as gifted as Redgrave, bestows on Didion's story a power and poignancy it doesn't similarly possess on the page. The distant and frequently distancing book is, paradoxically, a study in dealing with sorrow by not dealing with it, carefully crafted to the point of artificiality. The theatre does not allow its narrator that luxury, and in a house as tiny as the Booth, prying, caring, even occasionally empathetic eyes cannot be avoided anymore than the work's essential truth: All life comes to an end; until it does it must be lived, and when it does it must be remembered.
True, the play by necessity omits dozens of details, both minute and majestic, that made the book as much of a historical chronicle of Didion and Dunne's love affair as one of the tragedy that brought it crashing to a close. It is not, though, poorer for it. The absence of atmosphere and the dilution of the impact of Didion's family are felt, but in their place is a clearer path for her as a survivor to traverse through the darkness. If the tone of the work has in many ways changed from muted earth tones to grayscale, the images evoked are no less vibrant.
There are times, though, you might find yourself wishing that the still pictures Didion's words paint would give way to a bit more animation. If the play is never boring, there are more than a few times it threatens to devolve into a lecture on existentialism that will make the uncomfortably relatable subject more remote than it should be.
But even this is tackled, if in a roundabout way: The passage of time has amplified Didion's ability to draw greater comparisons between her husband's supposedly unexpected demise and her daughter Quintana's slow languishing in hospitals on the East and West Coasts. You understand now, as you (and Didion) could not before, how their fates were intertwined and represented opposing yet linked factors in Didion's numbed depression and eventual apotheosis. Quintana's sad fate, which followed the publication of the book but receive their full due here, only strengthens and adds dimension to Didion's plight.
When she redirects that inner pain outward, usually with an accusatory or reproachful tone adopted by someone who insists she knows better than you (and probably does), her rage is both inescapably true and oddly discordant given the sedate surroundings. Director David Hare, who has insisted on minimalism throughout the production (Bob Crowley's set lightly relies on impressionistic photographic backdrops; Jean Kalman's lights impart a disquietingly correct film noir feel), is not at his best at these times, and allows the play to move away from reflection and closer to scolding.
These moments feel like attempts to involve the audience directly in action that wants no active part of them, and that disrupts the tenuous balance that Didion and Redgrave have conspired to create. The outside world too eagerly begins pushing inside at a time you need to remain with her in the realm of her expanding consciousness.
Yet you're never in serious danger of becoming completely isolated; the realization dawns on you before long that you, and those around you, are adrift on the same stormy sea, trying to make sense of existence before it is no more. Redgrave is an avatar for one woman who faced that struggle and has placed her heart, her soul, and her past on the line to demystify the ineffability of life. Ultimately, though, neither Redgrave nor Didion is any better than you are - they're the same as you are.
Horrifying? Perhaps. But meeting and conquering specters like that is crucial: Knowing that one person survived can help you remember you can survive, too. As this quietly sincere and richly affecting play proves, such thinking might well qualify as legitimately magical in its own right.