Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Year of Magical Thinking
Aurora Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Passion

Stacy Ross
Photo by David Allen
Think, for a moment, about all the little lies you tell yourself to get through the day. All those moments when you deny reality in the meager hope you can make them come true. Broken cookies have no calories. If I kiss the lottery ticket it will turn out to be a winner. It's five o'clock somewhere. We all engage in magical thinking to one extent or another. For acclaimed author and screenwriter Joan Didion, magical thinking served as a defense against the crushing grief of losing her husband (fellow novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne) and their daughter in the same year, an experience she chronicled in the National Book Award-winning The Year of Magical Thinking, later adapted into the solo play of the same name, which opened Thursday night at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre.

As you can imagine, this is not a happy story. But it is a compelling one, written with great precision and honesty—despite the emotional distance Didion has established between herself and the events of that tragic year. There is no discussion of tearful nights, no recounting of a descent into depression or of numbing one's emotions with alcohol. Instead, Didion uses her curiosity and her skills as a reporter to present a surprisingly clear-eyed and detailed account of the events leading up to and following the deaths of the two people she loved most dearly. She presents us with chilling details, such as the memory of finding the syringes and ECG electrodes left on the floor after the paramedics have gone, and the pool of blood nearby. She calmly relates how her husband was taken to New York Presbyterian, six crosstown blocks from their apartment in New York, and not to their usual hospital, Columbia Presbyterian, far uptown, nor to Beth Israel North, where their daughter had been admitted five days earlier for what had seemed like a severe flu but had developed into sepsis that put her into a coma.

These details—like the pink index card where she had noted (for a movie script she was writing) how long the brain can survive without oxygen—seem to serve as a sort of moat between Didion and the horrifying reality that she reminds us we will all face one day. "It will happen to you," she says. "The details will be different, but it will happen to you." The magical thinking—like the thought that she can't give away John's shoes because he might need them "when he comes back"—seems, though it is the title of this work, to pale in comparison to her reporter's obsession with facts and details as a mechanism to stave off grief. Grief, she claims, that "has a place—but also its limits."

Likewise, actor Stacy Ross portrays Didion with an icy-cool restraint. There are no outbursts of emotion, no knowing smiles at lines that get laughs, no righteous anger at a cruel, capricious God. No, true to Didion's thoughtful prose, Ross keeps everything on an even keel—one that is all the more chilling for this seeming absence of emotion. In her first moments on stage, Ross seems almost lost, as though she is a traveler realizing she's in the wrong terminal at the airport or suddenly discovering she has no idea where she's left the keys to her car. Soon, though, she seems to remember why she's there: to tell us an important but very sad story with as much clarity and conviction as she can muster.

The Year of Magical Thinking seeps into your bones like a cold fog spilling over the coastal hills, spreading into every nook and cranny of your being until you begin to shiver in the damp frigid air and can think of nothing but getting inside by a warm fire. As Ross as Didion relates the details of her daughter's death, I could think only of calling my own daughter the moment I left the theatre, just to hear her voice and reassure myself that all was well in my life. Which I did.

The Year of Magical Thinking, through July 21, 2019, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$70. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 510-843-4822.