Maureen Anderman Brilliant In Didion's ' Year Of Magical Thinking'
By FRANK RIZZO
The show: Joan Didion's “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a solo show based on her memoir, at the Westport Country Playhouse
First impressions: Starting with Alexander Dodge's Zen-like set, you know you are in for an experience of thoughtful reflection. A giant, three-sided wooden frame (a portal perhaps?) dominates the stage. An Adirondack chair sits angled off to the side. The backdrop is shrouded in soft, flowing, off-white fabric with the sea in the distance, beautifully lit by Philip Rosenberg with an atmospheric sound design by Drew Levy.
Maureen Anderman plays Didion. Dressed in a stylish, draping, taupe outfit that’s as sparse as a monk’s garb, she acts as a spiritual guide to her listeners (the audience), recounting her experience of shock, grief and recovery in the aftermath of the sudden death of her husband and daughter. As she says, “when this happens to you this is what it will be like.”
Sounds like fun summer fare: Theater, even in warm weather, doesn't always have to be light and breezy. And artistic director Mark Lamos has always been a man who mixes it up. A few summers ago he presented Samuel Beckett's “Happy Days.”
What does the title mean? It refers to the year following the death of her husband as she cares for her adult, recently-wed daughter who is in a coma, recovers and then is stricken again. Though Didion intellectually understands that her husband is dead, there's a large part of her thinking that if she does this and she does that (referring to sequential rituals and rules of everyday life), he will magically return and all will be as it once was.
Classic case of denial, no? Yes, but as told by Didion is clear, detailed, self analytical way, fascinating. She is, after all, a wonderfully honest and no-nonsense writer.
She is also, as she says how others refer to her as, “a pretty cool customer.”
Not a hugger? Hardly. But that emotional distance by an unsentimental though clearly loving and protective mother and wife makes the narrative riveting, in a dingo-ate-my-baby way. As she says, this is no “His-eye-is-on-the-sparrow” story. Didion -- and Anderman -- are flying solo in this solitary limbo.
This altered state is reflective of the work it is based on. It's not quite a play but it’s more than an audio-book version of her memoir.
It's also not late-breaking news. After all, Didion is hardly the first person to experience loss and tragedy. But her self-analysis and perspective of both the real and surreal aspects of her personal and specific journey draws you in as if you were in a kind of dream.
Anderman is extraordinary in her precise portrayal of Didion as a woman who seeks control, who always wants to be on the correct and well-managed path, who tries to revise her life as she does her prose. But she also oh-so-subtly shows the terror, fierceness and love of a strong, clever and brilliant woman who has to finally learn how to let go. Delicately directed by Nicholas Martin, there's a sublime calm at the center of this personal storm.
Who will like it?: Fans of Didion; the intellectually curious; those who have gone through a death experience. Who won't?: Those who may be put off of the name-dropping (Vogue, Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Malibu, ceremonies at St. John the Divine Cathedral, Prada, what to say to the New York Times) and the privileged life that Didion lives. And for some, the journey surrounding death and grief may just be too painful -- but there's also catharsis in the sharing of her story of life after death.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Grief without tears can be stunning, too, as shown in beautifully acted and presented Westport production.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Maureen Anderman is one of this country's finest actresses. Whenever I see her on stage it's a revelation. Here's hoping that she gets more great classic roles.
For the kids?: Let me see now: the death of a father and a child, as told by a cool customer of a mother, er...no.
Side note: Joan Didion will be speaking at a presentation by the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford on Thursda, June 28, at 7 p.m. at Hartford Stage.
The basics: Running time is 80 minutes, no intermission. The show continues through June 30. Information: 203-227-4177 and www.westportplayhouse.org.