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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pain and wisdom in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking

Posted by on Thu, Apr 28, 2011 at 5:44 PM

The Year of Magical Thinking
4 stars
PRC2; UNC Center for Dramatic Art
@Kenan Theatre
Through May 1

Joan Didion adapted her own blistering, caressing memoir of a year of loss and mourning, so the zing of her language is not lost in the one-woman staged version of The Year of Magical Thinking, on view at PlayMakers through Sunday, May 1. The sentences run a little shorter, the vortex-like circularity of the literary structure is less evident, but in the hands of fine actress Ellen McLaughlin, Didion’s excruciatingly refined sensibility comes through, along with her remembered pain described and the wisdom it seared into her.

It is Didion’s art to get at things exactly, not just the facts but the feelings that give facts meaning. She likes to be right; she likes to be the one in charge, the protector, the fixer, the one with the knowledge. Helplessness has not been in her repertoire. So when her husband, the author John Gregory Dunne, dies mid-sentence while they’re having drinks in front of the fire, she is jettisoned to an alien world. “You’ll see it,” says the character of the sudden change in the storyline, “as kind of a first draft.” This death is surely a mistake, a “reversible error,” something that can be corrected.

Not only without her husband of 40 years, but without the ability to do anything about it, Didion slips into what she calls “magical thinking.” Even while coping with “the arrangements,” she’d be scheming: If I keep his shoes, she would think, he will come back. Didion exercises more of the magic as her daughter’s health takes terrible, bizarre, plunges, and Quintana ultimately dies, just a few months after her father.

“We do not expect grief to be obliterative,” she says. For a long time she wrote nothing.

But Didion being Didion, her implacable analytical mind regains ascendancy, and she turns it to her own story and her own experiences along the river between life and death. She writes her book, which itself contains quite a few literary references. But on stage we are another layer deep, at least. From the book came the stage play, in which an actress playing a character named Joan Didion tells the story, often using a copy of the book as a prop.

The show is smart as a play, but cleverness is not the point. Conveying hard wisdom is the point. You may feel like you’ve been scrubbed with paint thinner halfway in, but by the end, you’ll feel stronger, cleaner, more able to endure—and probably luckier … at least for now.

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