THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
This is not the lighthearted, summertime fare that Westport Country Playhouse (WCP) audiences may be accustomed to seeing. The play,“The Year of Magical Thinking” by award winning author and screenwriter, Joan Didion, concerns the loss of both her husband and only daughter within a short period of time. Didion initially wrote a successful book with the same title and explains in great detail the “what if” and “should of” happenings that took place during the author’s terrible ordeal. While expressing her feelings and state of mind, Didion also reveals the magical games people sometimes invent to keep sane in time of stress.
Maureen Anderman, who has numerous Broadway credits and appeared previously at the Playhouse, is very believable in the role of Joan Didion. Although the piece is 90 minutes long without an intermission, Anderman, wearing a softly flowing, lounging ensemble, sweeps gracefully across the stage and holds your interest to the very end. Expressively narrating her troubled thoughts, as if to an old friend, she evokes compassion along with sad memories about our own losses when she warns, “...this will happen to you.”
The stage contains a single, Adirondack chair that seems symbolically sheltered underneath a large, wooden frame. Since the story takes place between a Manhattan apartment and Malibu, California, a melancholy ocean is projected through the gauze drapery when appropriate. This stark setting is quite a departure for Alexander Dodge, who usually designs highly decorative masterpieces, particularly WCP’s “The Archbishop’s Ceiling.” Here, the set’s simplicity along with Drew Levy’s soft lighting, allows the audience to focus on the narrative.
The program notes inform us that the word “thinking” in the play’s title, refers to how we are meant to respond to the work and that “...sharing in its (the play’s) presence, clarity, and illumination, can prove exhilarating, useful and good.” The work is further described as “…facing the truth and gaining the ability to go on.” If the writer’s sad memoirs does this for you, that’s well and good. Putting such intimate thoughts and feelings into words could be considered therapeutic for both the writer and the viewer.
Sooner or later, everyone will encounter the death of a loved one. Each one of us is or will be a survivor, and each survivor feels that he or she has a special story to tell about this terrible experience. So, what makes Didion’s play unique? Are there lessons to be learned here? I really don’t know. Thoughts and feelings are subjective and humankind tends to create explanations for things that are unknowable.
We get the impression that Didion was always a strong, energetic person who never relaxed long enough to let some things go. She took detailed notes, was always in control, and felt that she knew all the answers. Eventually, Didion comes to realize that sometimes there are no answers. Life is part of “geology,” she explains -- like the ever-changing earth. Change can suddenly happen without having to make sense and we are left to make the best of it.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” is well written, well presented, and offers food for thought. Plays through June 30
This review appears in "On CT & NY Theatre" June/2012