Joan Didion's memoir shines in 'The Year of Magical Thinking'

Above, author Joan Didion with her husband John Gregory Dunne in 1987. At left, Roxanne Fay.
Above, author Joan Didion with her husband John Gregory Dunne in 1987. At left, Roxanne Fay.
Published Jan. 9, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Roxanne Fay is giving a superb performance of intense emotional restraint as novelist and journalist Joan Didion in the one-woman play adapted from Didion's heartbreaking memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Rail thin, with short, slicked-back hair that emphasizes her ears, almost Yoda-like, Fay doesn't exactly resemble the diminutive Didion, but she seems more like the author than glamorous Vanessa Redgrave, who premiered the play on Broadway in 2007. Fay's finely calibrated facial expressions and body language are uncannily right in depicting an intelligent, controlling woman whose life is in freefall. The production directed by Bob Devin Jones opened Tuesday in a small theater at the Dali Museum and transfers tonight to the Studio@620 for performances through the weekend.

Didion has always divided readers. Along with contemporaries such as, say, Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Tyler, she has had a long, prolific literary career that makes her something like her generation's Virginia Woolf — and Didion stands out for writing both fiction and nonfiction. Her novel Play It as It Lays and The White Album, a collection of essays, were masterpieces of the '60s, and the mix of the personal and the political she deployed in Salvador, Miami and other books set a standard for the new journalism.

But Didion can also infuriate, with a mannered, insinuating sort of style that invites parody, with her eye for high-fashion brands and name-dropping intimacy with the rich and famous. Many a reader has sworn her off as little more than an upscale narcissist. Envy may also play a part in such dismissals, as she led, and wrote extensively about, a glittering life with her husband of 39 years, novelist and essayist John Gregory Dunne, who was also her screenwriting partner, and their adopted daughter, Quintana.

Didion, now 78, had retreated somewhat from the spotlight until a sad series of circumstances took over her world, starting in 2003, when Quintana fell seriously ill, and Dunne, one night at home in New York City not long after he and his wife had visited their comatose daughter in the hospital, died from a massive coronary. Less than two years later, Quintana died at 39.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion's best-selling 2005 memoir chronicling her grief in the aftermath of her husband's death, won the National Book Award for nonfiction, and most of the episodes in the play come from that book. She expanded the scope of the play to include Quintana's death, the focus of a later sorrowful book, Blue Nights.

It's tempting to think of Didion as a tragic figure, but as she stresses, nothing could be more ordinary than her experience. The deaths of loved ones come to us all. "This happened," Fay's character, smartly dressed in gray and black, says. "It will happen to you. The details may be different, but it will happen to you."

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Didion's play lacks the discursive quality that makes her prose at its best so beguiling, but her economical phrasing translates well to the stage. For all her bereavement, the report she brings back from the health care front is a model of shrewd observation, and it's not without mordant humor. "If they give you a social worker, you're in trouble," she says, recalling her arrival at the hospital after Dunne was taken there by ambulance. At another point, she muses on the spectacular river views from the ICUs of various New York hospitals.

Didion's picture of her marriage with Dunne may be the bravest aspect of the play. She doesn't shy from rough patches in their relationship. " 'Must you always be right,' John would say when we fought, which was often," she says. " 'Must you always have the last word. Just let it go.' " With such unflinching honesty, she pays a lovely tribute to her late husband.