If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

“Magical Thinking” with Anderman at Playhouse


The luminous Maureen Anderman provides her own special kind of magic as the sole voice in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the one-woman show based on Joan Didion’s bestselling memoir currently on stage at the Westport Country Playhouse. The book recounts Didion’s mourning process after the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne in 2003, followed by the passing of their adult daughter, Quintana, a few months later. Didion, who also wrote the stage adaptation of her book, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.


“The Year of Magical Thinking” was a star vehicle for Vanessa Redgrave a few seasons ago on Broadway and has been a staple of regional theatres ever since. Hartford TheaterWorks produced their own version with Annalee Jefferies at the helm. I found that production rather dull and static and wasn’t truly looking forward to seeing another version of this memoir-on-stage.


What a difference a performer and director can make! In a brisk, compelling 90 minutes (no intermission) Maureen Anderman commands the stage with her elegant beauty and authoritative voice. Staged fluidly by director Nicholas Martin with a lovely backdrop of sheer curtains and ocean vista by set designer Alexander Dodge, this “Magical Thinking” seems now an entirely different play.


To be fair, this is not easy material to make work since it’s not entirely a play and barely theatrical. It is simply one woman’s story of how she handled unimaginable grief and where she eventually took comfort. The play can be both grim and downbeat but, in Ms. Anderman’s hands, it becomes something approaching revelation. Familiar words of comfort and hope suddenly take on complex meaning as Anderman refuses to sentimentalize the grieving process. With the simple statement, “life changes fast,” we see a range of emotions cross the actress’ expressive face and her timing of the quiet moments here is just as captivating as the bigger dramatic discoveries.


Mr. Martin -- working with designers Drew Levy and Philip Rosenberg -- adds subtle shadings of sound and light throughout this delicate piece. A fireworks display, which in other productions could seem a distraction, here adds an effective melancholy tone. With the exception of an oddly jarring follow-spot used occasionally on Ms. Anderman, Mr. Rosenberg’s lighting is warm and inviting.


As for Anderman, enough praise cannot be given. The Weston, Connecticut, actress has had a long and varied career most recently as the Broadway understudy to Vanessa Redgrave in both “Magical Thinking” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” While Joan Didion’s memoir remains a questionable work for the stage, there is no doubt that the current Westport production features a central, blazing performance of light and shadow, insight and compassion that is simply too good to miss.


“The Year of Magical Thinking” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through June 30. For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.


Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.


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