"The Year of Magical Thinking" -- Westport Country Playhouse
Joan Didion has a masterly command of the English language, mining it for subtleties and elegant turn of phrase. Thus her original novel of the same name stands as a landmark statement of human grief, loss, and recovery. It is the story of Didion’s tragic personal loss -- that of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and her adopted daughter Quintana.
Didion has taken her moving novel and adapted it for the stage. The play, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” is now at the Westport Country Playhouse and features the gifted actor Maureen Anderman in the solo role. Though the play is overlong and tends to be repetitious (ninety minutes non-stop), it is nevertheless compelling, particularly in Anderman’s hands and under Nicholas Martin’s equally sensitive direction.
For Westport playgoers, perhaps seeking summer escapist fare, Didion’s play may not be the best choice of entertainment. It is essentially heavy-going, as Didion, Anderman, and their viewers contemplate such metaphysical questions as death, dying, and life’s unexpected turns. Though we all face the inevitable ending, we do not look easily into the dark.
For Didion it is a twisted, convoluted path to acceptance. Initially in denial, Didion writes that she expects her husband to return at any moment. Further devastated by her daughter’s death (of a strange, inexplicable illness), she continues in denial -- magical thinking, as she calls it. It is only gradually, over the long monologue, that the newer, stronger, more realistic Didion emerges.
Anderman appears on stage, clad in a simple long gown that adds to her stature (both literally and symbolically). The set design (Alexander Dodge) and lighting (Philip Rosenberg) provide an appropriate back-up that adds a timeless quality to the piece. Without question, Anderman invades the role. She becomes Didion, giving the character a range of emotions, which she explores in depth.
“The Year of Living Magically” is likely to put the viewer through an emotional wringer -- not the experience every one wants these summer days. But for those of us willing to make the journey, it is a memorable experience.