At the beginning of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion acknowledges that the audience might not want to hear her story because we don’t think it could happen to us.
"It will happen to you," Didion says with a rueful smile, and of course she’s right.
That’s Didion the character, movingly played by Vickie Daignault in Stageworks’ production of the play, written by the real Joan Didion, acclaimed novelist and journalist, and based on her bestselling 2005 memoir of the same title.
The memoir is about Didion’s reaction to the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in 2003. During their marriage of almost 40 years, they shared their personal and professional lives, working as journalists, novelists and screenwriters, sometimes in collaboration. They also raised an adopted daughter, Quintana.
In late 2003, Quintana was hospitalized with pneumonia. Didion and Dunne came home from visiting her and were sitting down to dinner when he keeled over. As Didion tells us in the play, "He was there, then he wasn’t."
The memoir captures the numbness, denial, delirium, rage and everything else that follows, including the "magical thinking" that if she did everything right Dunne might somehow come back. She even kept his shoes "because he would need them."
For the play, Didion adapted that memoir and combined it with material from another, Blue Night, which she wrote after the staggering sequel to Dunne’s death: Less than two years later, Quintana died as well.
(For details about how Didion, 82, developed the play with playwright-director David Hare, and many more details about her life, see the new Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold, made by her nephew, actor-director Griffin Dunne.)
The stage version of The Year of Magical Thinking is a one-woman show. Just delivering this 90-minute monologue is a feat, and Daignault does it with skill and subtlety. She’s alone on stage, but a few props and a robustly physical performance make the play much more than a lecture. Daignault doesn’t resemble the real-life Didion, but that’s not important — as particular as this story is, it’s even more universal.
Simply dressed in a white dress and green-gold wrap, Daignault delivers her lines mostly in cool, clipped tones that convey the quality of Didion’s spare, understated prose. When grief ambushes her and she finally breaks down in wordless howls, the contrast makes it all the more affecting.
Her voice is the play’s central element, and the staging emphasizes that. The simple set evokes a child’s drawing: the outline of a house, a bare tree and its fallen leaves, a chair, all in autumnal colors.
It’s an exploration of grief that is raw and refined at once. Didion tells us near the play’s end that she understands we’d like to think she’s crazy. "If I’m sane, what happened to me could happen to you.
"It’s safer to think I’m crazy."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.