The Year of Magical Thinking on Broadway
What would The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's one-woman show on Broadway starring Vanessa Regrave, be like without having first read the book?
Impossible to experience in hindsight, of course, as Didion's memoir of grief—her open, moving, sometimes harsh, always deeply intelligent sharing of what she did and how she felt upon losing John Gregory Dunne, her husband of 40-plus years, while their daughter Quintana lay in a coma—was perhaps my favorite book of 2006, and I had finished it just a few weeks before tickets to her show went on sale in January. But as I sat in the Booth theater last Friday night (a lovely evening, by the way, spent with Debbie, my mom and Erika), I couldn't help but wish that I had no prior knowledge of Didion's insights and epiphanies into what it's like to lose the people you love and depend upon the most... I couldn't help but wish that I was hearing it all for the first time.
Don't get me wrong: this is a very good night at the theatre. Redgrave's performance is riveting, effortlessly capturing the often complex rhythms of Didion's writing, earning every ounce of the emotion of her character, and, for me, making the play seem too short at an hour and forty minutes. And the staging is beautiful, too, both the lighting and the massive, subtly-painted curtains which fall to the ground behind Redgrave during the course of the show, often with a melancholic "whoosh". Life moving on, even as all Didion wants to do is go back. And, yes, I got choked up and teary-eyed throughout. But I think some of the material's power was lost upon this second "reading," even though the play includes much that was not in the book. The bit about Didion's unwillingness to throw away Dunne's shoes, for example, hit me hard on the page, less so on the stage. One of Debbie's favorite passages in the book, about how grief makes you literally crazy, also lost some of its initial impact. My mom felt a deep indentification with Didion's repetitious wish, whispered to Quintana, "You're safe, I'm here", when, of course, the opposite was true... but again, the overall effect was somewhat diminished by its familiarity. So although there are many excellent reasons to see Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking, if you haven't yet read the book, I would suggest maybe holding off until after the show.
The Year of Magical Thinking runs through August 15.