"The Year of Magical Thinking

By David A. Rosenberg

The big news this morning is the alchemy of star and director. “The Year of Magical Thinking” at the Westport Country Playhouse, features Weston’s Maureen Anderman, the actress who stood by for Vanessa Redgrave, no less, on Broadway. Under Nicholas Martin’s imaginative direction, she transforms an essentially static work into an evening of mysticism and wonder.

 

Based on the memoir by Joan Didion, “Magical Thinking” traces the horrifying journey that the author took when faced with the death of both husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo.

 

“It will happen to you,” she warns at the outset. “Life changes in an instant.” That instant was the sudden collapse of her husband at the dinner table. Was it just exhaustion that caused him to put his head down? Was he, perhaps, trying to be funny? No, it was a heart attack and, despite the swift EMS response, it killed him.

 

Those are the facts that Didion had to deal with, while also worrying about her daughter who was in a medically induced coma at a nearby hospital. And deal with it she does, in a manner than harks back to shamans and spells, to ancestors and beliefs that pre-date our era.

 

If she remembered every detail, down to the minute, if “whatever happened was open to revision,” then, perhaps, her husband would not be dead but would return to wear his clothes and shoes. She would save him and reverse his fate, would, indeed, out-maneuver the vortex. Two sentences might just be enough for salvation: “You’re safe. I’m here,”

 

In Westport, what could be -- what was -- too often an inert soporific, still has occasional longeuers. Yet, the 90-minute, intermissionless evening inches its way into the heart. Anderman neither objectifies nor sentimentalizes the material. A columnar figure, she holds herself in check, protected, hemmed in by a formidable wooden archway that frames her and a cushioned Adirondack chair. Upstage, a scrim also encloses the space, until lit from behind to show a vast, unyielding, indifferent ocean.

 

It’s a courageous evening in which we learn not only of the illnesses and the deaths -- that would be too much -- but of the past relationships brought to such an abrupt and unforeseen end. Martin’s sensitive direction, Alexander Dodge’s abstract set design, Drew Levy’s subtle sound design and Philip Rosenberg’s lighting (except for a wandering follow spot) draw us into a world that, for all its celebrity, is not unlike our own.

This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Hour.

 

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