Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

The Year of Magical Thinking
a Mixed Blessing at Intiman

Also see David's review of Wicked

Judith Roberts
While never having read Joan Didion's acclaimed book The Year of Magical Thinking, I looked forward to seeing the author's stage adaptation at Intiman Theatre, especially having unfortunately missed Vanessa Redgrave's acclaimed performance in its Broadway run. The Intiman production, thoughtfully directed by Sarna Lapine and passionately performed by veteran actress Judith Roberts, proves a mixed blessing for me. For a tale rife with poignant ironies and cruel twists of fate, I found it oddly unmoving but rarely uninteresting, though at 110 intermissionless minutes it is ultimately exhausting.

Joan Didion and her husband/writing partner John Gregory Dunne were in the midst of a major health care crisis involving their beloved adopted daughter Quintana when Dunne suddenly passed away from a heart attack on December 30, 2003, shortly after leaving Quintana's hospital bedside. The play and the book detail Joan's pursuit of the concept of "magical thinking" which she employs in trying to convince herself that her spouse may come back to her. It also describes Joan's tireless efforts to aid in her daughter's recovery from septic shock brought on by pneumonia, followed by a short period of recovery, followed then by a series of further medical setbacks, which led to Quintana's death in the summer of 2005. The stage Joan warns us from the beginning that what has happened to her "will happen to you." The writing is unsentimental, pungent and often darkly comic. It offers little release or chance to shed more than a tear or two over Joan's losses, or our own that are brought to mind. With no intermission break, it is a long, uncomfortable sit at times, but I can't say I was ever bored.

Judith Roberts brings a sort of less quavering Kate Hepburn to mind in her vocal delivery, and at times there are pauses to deliver lines or speeches that indicate she might still be finding her way into Didion's persona, but more often than not she gives a bravura performance, with several notable parts to it that are greater than the whole. Particularly fine are her descriptions of the difficulty getting a hospital staff to leave the television off in Quintana's room, so that she would not learn of her father's death in that way. And her description of trying to detour away from familiar streets and locales in Southern California during a subsequent hospitalization of Quintana's is delivered with an almost nightmarish intensity. Ms. Roberts is a pro, no doubt about it, but I feel like they should have perhaps added a short intermission to give both her and us some respite. (A recent press release from the theatre advises that noted Seattle actress Lori Larsen will alternate in the Didion role at certain performances).

I must note in closing that my companion, a mother and registered nurse, whose own daughter had a two-year bout with sepsis (in this case brought on by strep) and happily an amazing recuperation from it, found the play compellingly realistic, hitting so close to home. Perhaps I just found too little stage magic in The Year of Magical Thinking. But I may well pick up the book sometime, to see what I sort of spell it casts.

The Year of Magical Thinking runs through September 20, 2009 at Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer St., Seattle Center. For more information go to

Photo: Chris Bennion

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.

- David Edward Hughes

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