Editors' pick

The Year of Magical Thinking

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The Year of Magical Thinking photo
James M. Thresher for The Washington Post

Editorial Review

A Writer's Vivid Portrait of Grief -- Her Own

By Nelson Pressley
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, June 25, 2009

"The Year of Magical Thinking" is about as blunt as theater gets.

In terribly quick succession, author Joan Didion lost her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, to a heart attack, then suffered the illness and death of their daughter, Quintana. This show, based on Didion's best-selling memoir, is a chronicle of her grief.

"You might think you'll see it straight, but you won't," goes one of the script's characteristically dry yet haunted cautionary lines. In the Studio Theatre's stark, aesthetically appealing production, the messages are delivered by Helen Hedman in a performance that walks an extremely fine line between exquisite composure and emotional collapse.

Didion remembers being called a "cool customer" by a medical staffer, and while that description fits the character we see onstage, Hedman delivers the line with the slightest undercurrent of bite. Hedman is a degree hotter under the collar than Vanessa Redgrave was in the Didion role last year in New York. Close up in the Studio's comparatively intimate Metheny Theatre, you can feel how the little inanities and irreplaceable losses are quietly driving the writer mad.

"Seeing it straight" is one of Didion's hallmarks as a writer, which makes the magical thinking -- the wishfulness and self-protective delusions of an anguished wife and mother -- something both clinically noted by this observant writer, and something shatteringly felt, no matter how actively suppressed. The script doesn't work hard at amplifying that, nor does the subtle direction by Serge Seiden and Joy Zinoman. There is a bit of nuanced light and moody music here and there, but by and large, the show relies on little more than Hedman's delivery of Didion's crisp sentences.

That prose is evocative, whether Didion is drawing the picture of what she and Dunne were doing the night he suddenly collapsed over dinner, or how she slowly comes to grips with the head games she plays to try to dodge the inevitable pain. Didion is a longtime essayist, novelist and screenwriter, so she doesn't suffer from the playwriting tendency to over-poeticize; the writing makes its points and stays pretty clean.

She also doesn't have a dramatist's intuitive sense of performance, so at times the evening can feel static. "The Year of Magical Thinking" doesn't ask for pity or swell to the usual emotional crescendos, which leaves it at risk of not being much of a show at all.

Yet it has its little hooks, from the anecdotes drawn from Didion's celebrity circle to the beautiful minimalist design at the Studio (mainly the Vanity Fair-ready black jeans and white sweater get-up for the slender Hedman by Brandee Matthies). Hedman looks a bit like Didion -- her small eyes and bob haircut are surprisingly evocative -- and with or without the big designer sunglasses she keeps nearby, this persona definitely carries a whiff of glamour. (Redgrave, of course, did this by simply being Redgrave.)

That atmosphere matters, but it's the flat honest reckoning that has made this story reverberate through the culture the past few years. "It will happen to you," Hedman-as-Didion says directly to the audience near the top of the show. That crafty simplicity continues to earn this memoir a deeply respectful hearing.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Directed by Serge Seiden and Joy Zinoman. Setting, Luciana Stecconi; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Eric Shimelonis. About 1 hour 40 minutes.